One of the most readable and most useful contributions to the field of personal development and personal mastery is still the mammoth best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, published in 1989. Covey zeroes in on the role of habits in the quest for human effectiveness, since habits allow us to act without thinking. For example, most of us can tie our shoes with no trouble, since we have done it so many times. But actually learning to tie our shoes as little children with no shoe-tying experience can be frustrating and time consuming. Thus, it can be very difficult to form the productive habits we need to form. The paradox here, of course, is that we are all susceptible to bad habits as well as good habits, and our attempts to form good habits must often start with attempts to break bad habits. Once we have formed good habits for effective behavior and practiced them over and over, however, they become second nature so we can act on them spontaneously without thinking.

The first three habits that Covey addresses appear under his general heading of “private victory,” or independence.

Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, based on what he called the “hierarchy of human needs” is one of the most widely influential psychological theories ever proposed. Maslow was developing additional ideas about the highest levels of human aspiration when he was killed in a car crash in 1970. The levels of human need move from simple physiological needs to complex psychological and emotional needs, driven by the principle of prepotency, whereby lower needs must be satisfied before one can move up to higher needs, while the satisfaction of lower needs motivates one to move up automatically to the next higher need.

Stage 1: Survival Needs. Biological necessities such as oxygen, food, and water are the most basic and most urgent when threatened. No higher needs of any sort can emerge if one is dead. People share this need with all living things.


Stage 2: Security Needs. Survival needs projected into the future include such items as shelter and a reliable supply of food and water. When survival needs are met, we worry next about security, in other words survival over time. Other species share this need with humans and quite a few have developed strategic behaviors to safeguard their security; e.g. squirrels gather nuts in the fall and migratory birds plan ahead for summer or winter habitat.


Stage 3: Belonging Needs. These needs are sometimes called social needs, affiliation needs, or relationship needs. If our survival and security needs are met, our attention turns instinctively to our web of relations with other people. Our belonging needs are shaped and conditioned by early experiences within the universal belonging laboratory, the family. Whenever we move from one place to another, as in graduating from school, getting married or divorced, or getting a new job, we confront the need to figure out where we belong in relation to the other people around us. This need is directly related to the primitive needs for survival and security in light of the helplessness we all face at birth and the need to be nurtured for years before we can fend for ourselves.

In some preindustrial cultures, people never go anywhere alone and are terrified if they ever find themselves alone even for a moment. It is strong enough to distort or override rational decision processes. For example, even among highly educated college groups, students and faculty members get all worked up rooting for their own teams against teams from other colleges. In political elections, people often decide whom to vote for based on what group they relate to (Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives) or based on how they imagine their ideal political reference unit (a nation where abortion is banned or where reproductive choice is available, a nation that dominates the world or a nation that collaborates with other nations). Humans share this need with other primates and with some other species, but in humans the belonging needs are much more complex.


Stage 4: Ego Esteem Needs. After one fulfills the need to fit in and belong in some social group, one normally feels a need to stand out from the group and achieve a sense of individual integrity, autonomy, and excellence. The internal component to this need is self-esteem; the external component is reputation. For healthy development, the internal self-image and the external reputation should be reasonably similar; otherwise people around them will perceive their attitudes and behaviors as peculiar or dysfunctional. People who reach this level of need are often motivated to seek leadership roles within their groups. The need for ego esteem is not the same as selfishness; it is a necessary step on the road to higher and less self-centered levels of need. But if one gets stuck at this level, it can be as dysfunctional as getting stuck at lower levels.


Stage 5: Self-Actualization Needs. This level of need is the only one which does not arise out of a deficit or an absence of anything. People who have fulfilled their need for ego esteem and all the other lower needs may be said to “have it all” and not really need anything more. The need for self-actualization is not about missing anything or needing anything tangible; it is related to a need for growth, understanding, and fulfillment. It arises when one wishes to become “all I can become.” The need for meaning and purpose at this level also means that one becomes more sensitive to large social issues and the welfare of the community, including the whole human community. This is the motivation of saints and the great figures of history.

In any advanced developed society, however, it is possible for many people to be moved by self-actualization needs. One example of self-actualizing behavior that is becoming more and more common is the widespread tendency of people who have spent years accumulating wealth to turn around and give it away. The Rockefeller, Ford, and Gates Foundations are just the most obvious cases of lower-level need fulfillment giving way to philanthropic self-actualization. Another manifestation of this need that is very encouraging for the human community over the long term is the growth of nonprofit, philanthropic, community-service, and service-learning activities, especially among young people. The fastest-growing enterprise on the planet now, in fact, is nonprofit activity, not for-profit business activity or government-sponsored activity.

Applications for effective leadership

1. The principle of prepotency drives the movement of human need from level to level. This principle claims that the lowest unsatisfied need will motivate behavior at any given moment and that a need ceases to motivate when it is satisfied. Thus a starving person will be highly motivated to eat, but after eating a dozen cheeseburgers will cease to be hungry and will move on to the next level of need. In general, the fulfillment of any need automatically leads to the arousal of the next higher level of need. As one’s survival is assured, one thinks about security; as security is assured, one thinks about belonging needs; when one feels accepted in a satisfying reference group, one thinks about standing out from the group and achieving individual, personal goals; and as one achieves personal goals, one eventually worries about the welfare of others, the fate of the larger community, and the meaning of life.


2. Leaders tend to be a bit higher on the hierarchy of need than followers. This is because people who have satisfied a need can help others satisfy it as well. The natural tendency to move up the hierarchy means that we will seek to avoid moving downward; thus we are not likely to follow leaders at lower levels than we are, unless something in the environment is distressing or confusing (as in the case of dysfunctional leaders and tyrants like Adolf Hitler.) Potential leaders, however, are seldom significantly higher on the hierarchy of needs, simply because communication is more difficult between those whose life experiences are significantly different.


3. Effective leaders must be flexible and responsive to new realities. Leaders must recognize that their success in helping group members solve any given problem or satisfy any given need will result in a new set of circumstances and a new set of needs. Leaders who can’t relate to followers’ changing needs will be left behind as followers cease to be motivated by the needs they have already satisfied. Effective leaders are flexible, not stubborn or unwilling to address new realities. Sometimes leaders are really good at addressing needs at lower levels because of their own passion about those needs, but that very passion might interfere with their ability to grow and adapt to changing circumstances.


4. There are two general types of need relative to leadership and management. Management experts have adapted Maslow’s hierarchy into two general levels: the first three levels of the hierarchy, sometimes called “satisficers,” and the top two levels, sometimes called “motivators.” The gist of this approach is to encourage managers to make sure that workers’ lower needs are met so they are not distracted by fear, insecurity, and feelings of isolation and alienation from fellow workers. If the survival, security, and belonging needs are met within the workplace, then workers will be free to work at the higher levels where creativity, imagination, and cooperation are more common. The more creative, complex, and high-tech the work, the more important it is for workers to perform at the top levels of need.


5. Theory X and Theory Y are also relevant to the motivation of followers, as addressed in the section on moral reasoning. In The Human Side of Enterprise, psychologist Douglas McGregor based much of his thinking about Theory X and Theory Y on Maslow’s insights about human need and motivation. When people are stuck at the lower levels of need, they are more likely to behave in Theory X ways and appear selfish, unwilling to take responsibility, and narrow-minded. The higher people go on the hierarchy of need, however, the more able they are to take responsibility for work that is complex, creative, and cooperative. Leaders and managers can try to make sure their followers are in tune with the qualities of Theory Y by making sure that followers’ needs for survival, security, and belonging are met, and that the challenges they address are at least partly in the realms of ego esteem and self-actualization as described by Maslow.

Erik Erikson, an original protégé of Sigmund Freud and one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, proposed that we all move through eight predictable stages of growth and development. Each stage presents a challenge with a potentially positive outcome and a potentially negative outcome. If one resolves the challenge at each stage, one can then move on to the next stage. Failure at any stage, however, results in difficulty getting beyond that stage. The worst case would be a dramatic failure to achieve a basic sense of trust in infancy, since that would prevent one from achieving satisfactory resolutions at any stage beyond infancy. In general, having resolved the challenges of life relative to one’s age prepares one for potentially effective leadership of those who have not necessarily moved on to later stages. One interesting feature of Erikson’s stages is that the age ranges for the challenges in the later years have expanded due to expansion in the life expectancy of human beings in the third millennium.

Age 0-2 Basic Conflict: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust. The infant must form a trusting relationship with primary caregivers or risk developing a generalized sense of mistrust. The basic sense of trust we all need to develop at this stage is also the basis for courage, faith, and empathy for others. The irony at this stage is that the infant is thoroughly dependent on caregivers and is not able to control the process of achieving trust. Studies consistently indicate that habitual antisocial, criminal, and sociopathic behavior correlates strongly with a failure to achieve a basic sense of trust in the beginning of the life cycle. One obvious conclusion is that effective parenting and care-giving are critical to everything that follows in the life cycle. 

As the Louis Armstrong song lyric has it, “Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it.” Though the song is about falling in love, the lyric could also apply to leadership behavior. People are, of course, animals, so it stands to reason that some aspects of leadership among the humans would reflect some aspects of behavior among other critters. Before various species of hominids walked upright in the world, other species had been practicing varieties of behavior that look a lot like leadership. Many of these behaviors are well know to all of us, even those of us who have no special knowledge of animal behavior. It’s fairly easy to identify patterns of behavior that look like critters working together to adapt to challenging problems in their environments, especially in the assumption of different roles by different members of the hive, flock, herd, pride, or clan. Such roles are often distinguished by age, gender, strength, and skill. Ultimately, it’s not too difficult to recognize that the driving purpose of all the patterns of leadership behavior is the whole group’s survival and adaptation to a challenging environment.

Some of the behaviors summarized below are obvious to even the most casual observers; others have been described by expert animal behaviorists.

What we know about leadership can help us recognize effective or ineffective leadership and also help us understand what to expect from leadership when we need it.  Let’s turn to a few tentative conclusions about leadership effectiveness, using a widely recognized historical example: the man who is consistently rated by historians and the general public as the greatest presidential leader in American history: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, is also the source of the phrase “the better angels of our nature,” which shows up in the title of this curriculum. Before we get started, it’s useful to point out that “effectiveness” itself should be distinguished from “efficiency.” We will have more to say about this difference later on, but for now the essential difference is that efficiency is about doing things the right way with the lowest possible cost, which effectiveness is about doing the right thing in the first place. Efficiency is largely about money and resources; effectiveness is largely about ultimate impacts on people. Efficiency is what managers focus on; effectiveness is what leaders aim for.

Our first conclusion is that far-reaching leadership is always a response to crisis and conflict.  The greater the crisis or conflict, the greater the need for leadership.  In fact, where a group or community faces no unfamiliar problems and can rely on habits, laws, or customs, no real leadership is even necessary. Under such conditions, people who make a big fuss about getting other people to follow their orders come across as cranks or nuisances, not so much as leaders.

In the ancient world, significant leaders were generally approached as mythical figures whose attributes were considered of divine or semi-divine origin. In the modern era, attempts to render the study of leadership more rational and comprehensive had to overcome assumptions and superstitions generated by millennia of aristocratic systems featuring the power and privilege of first-born sons. As the twentieth century dawned, “great-man” theories and “fate” theories dominated the discussion of leadership study. As those quickly proved inadequate, more complex approaches emerged in the study of roles and contingencies.

Trait ("Great Man") Approaches.  As noted above, trait approaches stress the inborn traits of individual leaders, as if everything depends on strong individuals (virtually always men) born with the right stuff. They grew out of ancient mythological notions that leaders are special people who are born with special traits. They were also bolstered by nineteenth-century notions of Social Darwinism, which proposed that leaders emerge through struggle in a "survival-of-the-fittest" context and that strong people and cultures have a natural right to dominate apparently weaker people and cultures.

Power. The concept of power in general proves very useful in a variety of contexts, including physics, where power can be defined as “the ability to do work” and is measured by the amount of energy needed to move a given mass a given distance in a given time. The power of an automobile (originally called a “horseless carriage”), for example, is measured in “horsepower,” which is presumably the amount of mass an average horse can move a certain distance in a certain time. Social power refers to the capacity of one individual or group of people to move another individual or group a given distance in a given direction against resistance. In the case of social power, the notion of “distance” is more often psychological or emotional than physical. We will look shortly at several specific forms of social power. Here we will look at general concepts related to categories of social power.

A comprehensive understanding of effective leadership behavior starts with an understanding of the primary domains involved in leadership behavior and the seven core values that determine whether that leadership behavior is effective or not.

Leadership: Six Domains to Reckon With

  • You are your own most important instrument and your own best teacher.
  • Other People. Leadership is a reciprocal relationship with followers; other people are just as important as you are.
  • Tasks and Goals. Study and practice the tasks you need to perform. Set attainable but challenging long-range goals but focus on one step at a time.
  • Available Resources. Identify and develop whatever resources you can use to achieve your goals.
  • Group Size and Structure. No matter how big a group or organization gets, it does virtually all of its important work in small, team-size groups.
  • The Surrounding Environment. Everything happens somewhere; it’s important to know where you are at all times.

In our opening chapter, we noted that our working definition of leadership looks like this:


Leadership is a reciprocal process of motivating individuals and mobilizing resources in pursuit of goals shared by members of a group, organization, or community.  As an aspect of group innovation and problem-solving behavior, leadership involves the clarification of group goals, the communication of strategies for goal achievement, the initiation of structure in interaction and expectation, and the assumption of responsibility for results.

This article will unpack that definition bit by bit.

At the end of World War Two, Americans had just emerged on the winning side of a bloody, monumental struggle for world influence, a struggle orchestrated by seemingly titanic figures like Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt.  Just after the war, a variety of public opinion polls concluded that citizen confidence in American institutions was running high – around 75% of Americans felt secure about the future of American government, business, education, religion, and the professions.  Fifty years later, however, that level of citizen confidence had plummeted to less than 20%.  One strikingly consistent feature of these alarming statistics is that declining confidence in American institutions has been mostly a matter of declining confidence in the leaders of those institutions.  Americans still seem to value the inherent worth of their central institutions; they just don't believe they are being properly led.


The metaphor of human cultural evolution comes in handy as a tool for understanding leadership behavior.  We don't need to get tangled up in arguments about Darwinism, creationism, or the details of genetics and theology to recognize that the idea of cultural evolution can provide a useful framework for all our discussion of leadership, followership, management, and citizenship behaviors.  At the most basic levels, the concept of purposeful change for the benefit of a specific community or even the whole human race can be expressed in religious, philosophical, and scientific terms which are ultimately compatible with each other.

Paradoxically, the earliest stages of leadership and followership behaviors seem to be almost as instinctive within human groups as in other species.  People in groups, when faced with new or unfamiliar problems, intuitively begin casting about for solutions to apply, for culprits to blame, and for leaders to follow. Interaction, communication, and searching behaviors all increase, and new alliances frequently emerge.  If the original problems are widespread, interconnected, and deep-rooted, solutions may turn out to be a new community, a new religion, a new technology, a new political party, or a new industry.  The most significant acts of leadership in human history are associated with the most important turning points in our cultural evolution–in the introduction of agriculture and permanent settlements ten or twelve thousand years ago; in the founding and dissemination of the world's great religions and philosophies; in the development of science, technology, and industrial civilization; in the development of democratic forms of social organization; and in the emergence of the knowledge-based global civilization we're witnessing right now. 


Furthermore, the more potential responses the group or community can muster, the more likely it is to adapt effectively.  Among all species, the more defense mechanisms, the more resources within reach, the more coping strategies available to the group or community, the more secure its future.  Within human communities, of course, the most important resources are often ideas and visions. Thus, the more ideas and visions we can call on when things change all around us, the better off we all are.  Modern organizations and corporations recognize the value of research and development, which usually begin with brainstorming as the first step in the process of group innovation or self-renewal.  Brainstorming itself is nothing more than purposely dreaming up as many ideas as possible regardless of their logic or rationality.  Sometimes, in fact, the goofiest ideas lead to the most effective solutions by triggering a creative train of thought. We’ll say more about brainstorming in the chapter on groups, organizations, and networks.

Over the last five or six generations, as we’ve learned to integrate systematic study of human behavior with the insights of history, philosophy, and other intellectual disciplines, we’ve reached some useful conclusions about the nature of effective leadership behavior and how to develop it.  As noted above, the study of business and organizational management became an official academic field when the Wharton School was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881.  Around the same time, studies of large-scale organizations, time-and-motion studies of work processes, and research on small-group dynamics eventually gave organizational managers a variety of tools to accelerate the pace of economic development and technological change.  While managers are not necessarily leaders, the notion of management as a professional activity was clearly a step in the right direction.

Leaders are also expected to be more committed to group goals, to set examples for behavior, to understand just about everything that goes on inside and outside the group, and to take most of the responsibility for failure as well as success. And leaders are sometimes called on to make ultimate sacrifices in pursuit of their goals. Many of history’s greatest prophets and reformers, in fact, were persecuted, assassinated, or crucified for their efforts.  In one sense, the ultimate act of leadership is martyrdom, which calls forth increased commitment among followers in response to the sacrificial example of the leader.  That doesn’t mean that leaders in everyday life should think of their work as a suicide mission, but it does suggest that leadership has more to do with absorbing pain and hardship on behalf of other people than with inflicting pain and hardship on other people. Put another way, one of the most common yet seldom recognized roles of leadership is the scapegoat role.


Individual leaders tend to be good at either task behavior or relationship behavior, but very seldom do we find leaders who are outstanding at both. And no wonder. It's hard to keep people happy when you're cracking a whip over their heads, and it's hard to make tough decisions if you’re always trying to please everybody. Some organizations, like the military, have long recognized this fact and arranged methods whereby two different leaders could specialize in each of the two behaviors — a task master to crack the whip, and a sympathetic listener to resolve tension and build morale.


Despite all we had learned about effective leadership by the middle of the twentieth century, the tragic irony of two world wars and the specter of global annihilation seemed to undermine any sense of optimism about our collective ability to act wisely upon our knowledge. In the aftermath of World War II, as thoughtful women and men reflected on the horrifying destruction wrought by millions following leaders they apparently respected and admired, the whole question of human destiny and its relation to leadership, followership, and citizenship called for redefinition. In the years since then, at least in the United States, we’ve witnessed a gradual but consistent loss of confidence in our leaders. 

Yet upon further reflection, we must also recognize that a loss of confidence does not necessarily signify a loss of faith, and it certainly doesn’t signify a loss of hope. Our experience with large-scale mobilization for war itself has ultimately helped us learn how effective leadership for the common good might possibly work and how the skills and values of effective leadership can be developed. We’ve also begun to realize that the destructive potential unleashed by war over the last century century reflects an even more powerful creative potential within the human community.  Leaders in all times and places are called on to keep hope alive among followers; at this point in our history, leaders need to help us all recognize that if we can destroy ourselves, then we can surely create ourselves as well.


If we wanted to find valid signs of hope and self-renewal in the wake of World War Two, we would have to consider the challenges facing the losers at least as much as those facing the winners. Without a doubt, the world wars made us all losers in profound ways, but probably the three biggest losers of the Second World War in terms of physical destruction and loss of life were Germany, Japan, and Russia.  Russia, of course, was actually on the winning side and did not see any need for a thorough-going renovation of its whole system until more than 40 years after the war. Germany and Japan, however, had to start rebuilding literally from the ground up, salvaging whatever they could from the wreck of their past and integrating it with new ideas for the future. European economies were rebuilt largely through the Marshall Plan, an ambitious program of welfare and reconstruction financed by the United States and named for the American General and Secretary of State George Catlett Marshall. The case of Japanese renewal offers a different but equally intriguing example of leadership and collaboration, particularly but not exclusively within the realm of commercial and industrial development.


In a curious partnership with its very recent enemy, the United States, the Japanese after World War Two began immediately learning how to rebuild their culture. By the nineteen fifties, they had built a new if somewhat makeshift commercial enterprise based on inexpensive, mass-produced goods.  For some time the phrase "made in Japan" was a widely joked-about code phrase for cheap throwaway items; but people all over the world bought Japanese goods and the Japanese just kept experimenting, learning, and improving on their work. By the nineteen eighties, they had built a magnificent industrial juggernaut based on high-quality high-tech goods, including cars and VCRs. Management scholars scurried from all over the world to study the supposedly new forms of Japanese management — mostly based on consensus decision-making; continuous improvement; and collaboration between government, industries, and workers.  As it turned out, many of these new forms were borrowed from other nations — particularly the United States — and then experimentally adapted to accommodate the most important elements of Japanese culture.


At the same time in other nations, a similar process of learning and self-renewal among leaders and followers was unfolding.  While Germany and Japan were renewing their civilizations by learning from and collaborating with their former enemies, a mass movement for civil rights and social justice was sweeping the world, including the United States.  In the U.S., the most effective leadership strategies within this movement were based on the concept of nonviolent resistance to injustice and–once again–collaboration between traditional adversaries. Its most prominent practitioner, Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, was a Christian preacher with a Ph.D. who had consciously studied the leadership strategies of other nonviolent leaders, including Mohandas Gandhi, whose career had spanned the first half of the twentieth century.  Through organized nonviolent resistance and collaboration with sympathetic elements of the dominant culture, Gandhi had led millions of powerless, poverty-ridden followers  — first in South Africa and then in his native India — in a successful revolution against colonial British rulers.

Gandhi himself was brought up in the Hindu religion, but he was educated in the British legal system and his leadership strategies drew on elements of Christianity, Islam, and the works of the American writer Henry David Thoreau, who had willingly gone to jail in 1848 rather than pay taxes in support of a war his conscience could not support.  In an essay called Civil Disobedience, Thoreau explained his behavior and outlined the principles of nonviolent protest that would travel to South Africa and India and then back to the United States over the following century.


The point of all this is that we can keep hope alive if only we keep experimenting and keep learning from all possible sources–including our enemies. Leaders of the future must learn that the most important challenge facing any human group, organization, or community is to figure out what must be learned — and then learn it.


Leadership study and leadership education as an organized enterprise emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century as need coincided with opportunity.  Dismay about the need for more effective leadership coupled with a growing body of information about the way leaders and followers and people in general actually behave triggered a wave of intellectual and academic search behavior and new ways of thinking about business, government, community development, and organizational management.