#53 Maslow and Me...And Bennis

In 2003, Warren Bennis, an internationally renowned expert on leadership and leader development updated his classic book, "On Becoming a Leader". In Chapter one, "Mastering the Context" he addresses the issue of a perceived lack of governmental and corporate leadership by asking the question, "Where have all the leaders gone?", and then goes on to address why we need leaders in the first place. Bennis posits 3 reasons that leaders are necessary:

"First, they are responsible for the effectiveness of organizations. The success or failure of all organizations whether basketball teams, community-action groups, moviemakers, or automobile manufacturers rests on the perceived quality at the top."

"Second, the change and upheaval of the past years has left us no place to hide. We need anchors in our lives, something like a trim-tab factor, a guiding purpose."

"Third, there is a pervasive national concern about the integrity of our institutions."

I think that these are all very true and very important statements both in and out of the Army. I also think they point out some of the difficulties we face. However, they also imply that these issues are particular to a point in time - say the last 15 or 20 years. They sort of imply that over the last 2 decades there has been some form of fundamental change in the collective understanding and value system of Americans that has led to the search for 'effective leaders.'

Personally, I think that the order is a little backwards. I think that the 2nd sentence should have come first. I think every individual has a distinct need for anchors in their lives and leaders help fill that role. Every one of us is driven by Maslow's hierarchy, and by recognizing and accepting that, the anchoring function of leadership can be more correctly applied. Outlined below are the parts of the hierarchy:

Physiological Needs
These are biological needs. They consist of needs for oxygen, food, water, and a relatively constant body temperature. They are the strongest needs because if a person were deprived of all needs, the physiological ones would come first in the person's search for satisfaction.

Safety Needs
When all physiological needs are satisfied and are no longer controlling thoughts and behaviors, the needs for security can become active. Adults have little awareness of their security needs except in times of emergency or periods of disorganization in the social structure (such as widespread rioting). Children often display the signs of insecurity and the need to be safe.

Needs of Love, Affection and Belongingness
When the needs for safety and for physiological well-being are satisfied, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. This involves both giving and receiving love, affection and the sense of belonging.

Needs for Esteem
When the first three classes of needs are satisfied, the needs for esteem can become dominant. These involve needs for both self-esteem and for the esteem a person gets from others. Humans have a need for a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, and respect from others. When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.

Needs for Self-Actualization
When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person's need to be and do that which the person was "born to do." "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write." These needs make themselves felt in signs of restlessness. The person feels on edge, tense, lacking something, in short, restless. If a person is hungry, unsafe, not loved or accepted, or lacking self-esteem, it is very easy to know what the person is restless about. It is not always clear what a person wants when there is a need for self-actualization.

The primacy of Bennis' 2nd sentence is further backed up by one particular word in the first, 'perceived'. I have repeated time and again that the understanding of the situation and the expected outcomes by those at the bottom of the chain is absolutely critical to organizational success. They must at first 'perceive' (feel without proof) that the leader knows what he/she is doing and that he/she is keeping an eye out for their welfare and concerns. In essence the subordinate senses that the leader is fulfilling one of the 'anchor' requirements we all have. In fact, they do not have to be able to empirically prove that the leader cares about them. It is enough that they emotionally feel it. The leader actions and outcomes over an extended period will provide them the empirical data, but it is not an immediate requirement. The perception is.

Finally, it is very much true that there is, and has been, a perception of a lack of integrity in our national institutions over the last 2 decades, with both government and corporate scandals abounding every time you turn around. However, this presupposes that they are unique to this time in history which is patently false. We have always had scandal in both government and business. There has always been strife and deceitfulness inherent to both our corporate and governmental systems. Democracy - as practiced in America - has always been about deal-making, and the entire free-enterprise system almost encourages, if not explicitly condones, ethical waffling in exchange for a higher profit margin. We still hold the Carnegies, Mellons, Rockefellers etc as models of business, but people forget that they amassed their fortunes by preying on their workers and creating an indentured class who fueled their fabulous wealth. In fact, it is interesting to note that while those families are all well known now for their philanthropic work, the vast fortunes that allow for these charitable deeds were made quite squarely from many questionably unethical practices at the time. For people to suddenly find these things distasteful is a little bit naive. I have always found it interesting that Americans constantly complain about their politicians, but will not elect someone who doesn't know how to play the game. If there is a true distaste for our elected officials, then we have no one to blame except ourselves because we will not elect people based only on demonstrated personal character.

FM 6-22 " Army Leadership" defines leadership as, "..the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization."

Dictionary.com offers these definitions of the word 'influence':

"1. The capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.

2. The action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another or others:

3. A person or thing that exerts influence. "

While this post may seem somewhat disjointed so far, I think it comes together like this. First, we all have a need for an anchor in our lives that provides the baseline requirements laid out by Maslow. That can be a person or an institution. The Army at the base level provides much of the 'Safety' tier that we all require. The idea that safety needs go largely unnoticed until, "...periods of disorganization in the social structure", is very important to the issues surrounding the Army today. 8 years of war have called into question the fundamental trust that we all had in both the purpose and methods of the Army, it's leadership, and the very definition of what an Army leader is. There is a very strong perception by the common Soldier that his/her leaders are not, or cannot, meet this 'Safety' requirement. While they may or may not be able to prove it, they certainly feel it.

At the local level, the idea of influencing becomes critical. In Bennis' definition, the leader provides the comfort and anchor that the subordinate feels. There is a sort of happiness or benevolence feel to it. The Army definition strikes me as a little bit more oriented towards force or manipulation. I know it's not necessarily meant that way, but the Army idea of influencing others to do something seems a little more coercive to me. Which of course is entirely backed up by the hierarchical structure and rules developed by the institution itself.

In my opinion, we need to concentrate our leader development efforts towards repairing the perception of subordinates that their leaders cannot meet their safety demands, and simultaneously increase our efforts to address - at the personal level - the need for 'Love, Affection and Belongingness'. War and loss create the isolation and loneliness that we all try to overcome. The death of comrades, the re-emergence of base 'kill-or-be-killed' predatory behaviors all contribute to isolation and disconnectedness. I think many of the behavioral and family difficulties that I have outline in previous posts can be directly attributed to this feeling of a lack of belongingness. And so a leader has to provide the sense of comradeship and community we all desire. And that sense, that perception, has to be realized by the followers on a fundamental level. Even if they cannot prove it, they must feel it.

If we do these things, we will slowly bring back the individual from the fringe. By providing a sense of belonging, coupled with their trust in our ability to care and provide for them we will remove the greatest obstacles to individual growth. We can then move on to meeting their need for 'Esteem'.

The final part of the Army's definition of leadership includes the phrase, "...while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization." To me, this implies a somewhat impersonal business or system model. What would happen though if we saw improving the organization not in unit terms, but rather in meeting the need for esteem for the people who make up the organization? This is where I think we are currently failing the most. American society has produced a generation of people, "Millennials" who are very individualistic, protected and who have been affirmed all their lives. The Army then blunts that by distrusting and dismissing their thoughts, ideas and interpretation of their world. Millennials were not raised for institutional living. The very structure of the Army and it's somewhat autocratic workings cuts against the grain of their expectations.

I saw all of these things happening this week. I am a much different type of leader than the previous person who ran the organization. I am not better or worse, just different. This week was the first time my Soldiers got to see a little bit of 'how' I work. You can plainly see that they are nervous about the change at the top. They do not know what it means to them. They have lost an anchor point and suddenly are aware of their lack of 'Safety'. They are also struggling a bit with the need for 'Love, Affection and Belongingness'. The change in leader style has a lot to do with that. Former shared interpretations are now open again for individual interpretation. Most importantly however, they are at a loss to deal with my idea of inclusion. The previous leader provided a solid, known, but slightly distanced, anchor. My style is more focused on inclusion, and individual contribution to mission accomplishment. It is clear that they do not all feel comfortable with suddenly being invited to the table. Much like my thoughts on politicians, they seem to not like the way that the Army leadership system works, but given the opportunity to change it, they become very aware of their lack of confidence and ability to choose a different path. They do not know how, nor are they sure that they want, to become their own anchors.

One of my responsibilities is to provide them the place and opportunity to do that.

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.


  1. Interesting that you repeatedly choose the word "perceive." In my opinion, for many instances, perception is reality. Perception is reality much more so than the facts are. This is especially true when talking about leadership. For example, if someone is seen as a "good leader" regardless of what institution he/she leads, then their subordinates are going to do their best to support this "good leader" that they have. They do not actually have to do much to lead them. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. If someone is perceived to be a failure, then they will fail because others will not support them no matter what they do. This is especially true in politics and perhaps explains the unwillingness to vote for people who "don't play the game."

  2. Jen -

    Couldn't agree more. My perception of something is so much more important to my understanding of it than are facts. That is why it is so critically important that we ensure leaders and subordinates have a common understanding of the intended outcome of our actions. Due to unfolding circumstances and the ever-changing realities of the battlefield, I may perceive that I am in a life threatening situation, while the commander might perceive the battle is going exactly as planned. Ensuring a common understanding of both the positive and negative potential outcomes becomes a requirement, not an option.

    With regard to leaders and leader development, wouldn't it be valuable to young developing leaders if we informed them that sometimes, no matter what you do, if you cannot alter the perception of your subordinates, then you will either be successful (but it might not have anything at all to do with your abilities at the moment) or you will fail because nothing you could have done in reality affected their perception of the situation. That seems to me to be a key piece of information left out of all our leader development programs.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I'm honored that you found a post worth commenting on.