Maslow’s Hierarchy and Organic Leadership

by Cameron Schaefer on March 7, 2008

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”— Jack Welch

The term “organic” is thrown around quite regularly these days, mainly in regard to food, but driving to dinner last night my wife and I discussed the term in relation to leadership. While organizations spend billions of dollars each year trying to hire the best leaders, there will always be some that fail and other that succeed. What separates the two types of leaders is their ability to become organic to their employees or subordinates. But what does organic mean in terms of leadership?

Organic Leadership
– natural, motivating, compelling, effortless, inspiring hard work, creativity and innovation, fun

Non-Organic Leadership – unnatural, forced, coercive, minimal effort from subordinates, conformity, mechanical

An organic leader is one who we naturally want to follow, not because we’ll get fired if we don’t (though we may), but because something inside of us believes that they are adding value to our lives, businesses, and organizations.

Yet, while it may “feel” effortless, organic leadership is quite intentional. Organic leaders completely blow their non-organic counterparts away when it comes to one area: their ability to motivate and inspire people by meeting their higher needs.

A quick history. In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a landmark study on human motivation in relation to a hierarchy of needs. His study was unique because his subjects were successful, creative people, not the usual sick and disturbed crowd. He found that humans have needs which can be placed in two groups, basic and meta(growth), the higher depending on the fulfillment of the lower.

Creative Commons License photo credit: savethedave

Basic or Deficiency Needs

Physiological – food, water, sleep, sex, breathing

Safety – free from danger, security both physically and financially, clothing and shelter

Love/Belonging – social relationships, friendships, family, intimacy, need to be accepted

Esteem – respect from others, self-esteem, recognition, feeling valued and adequate

Meta or Growth Needs -

Cognitive – learn, explore, make sense of the universe, discover new things

Aesthetic – beautiful imagery, order, perspective

Self-Actualization – understanding yourself, knowing who you are and where you are going, realizing your full potential

Non-organic leaders meet only the first four basic needs, sometimes even less. Organic leaders meet these lower needs, but also have the ability to meet people’s higher needs: cognitive, aesthetic and self-actualization.

Think of the leaders that have inspired you. Chances are they excited you on a cognitive level by helping increase your knowledge and understanding. On an aesthetic level they were able to inspire you through imagery and unique perspective. And in all of this they allowed you to reach your full potential.

“Most innovative,” “Inspiring,” “Purpose-driven,” these are the words reserved for organic leaders, not for leaders who simply provided a safe work environment and steady paycheck, but for those who make it all seem so natural, those who understand the hierarchy of needs.

What have leaders done to inspire you? Do you agree with Maslow’s hierarchy? Why or why not? Let the discussion begin!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn March 10, 2008 at 11:47 am

wow. great use of maslow to bring illumination on why some leaders make us want to follow. certainly this is seen in the Bible of Jesus offering his followers something more than their jobs could. many times, people found so much life and joy and purpose in follwing Jesus that they would willingly forego the lower, more basic needs. that is something not seen too often. he must be a special leader…and one worth following. great thoughts, cam.

Kaleb Heitzman November 30, 2008 at 9:53 pm

I am a student at Asbury Theological Seminary and am currently pursuing my Masters in Leadership.  My research and writing focus is in Organic Leadership.  I have consulted some of your works as inspiration while working on my research.  I am wondering if you would care to fill out a consent form as well as an online survey as a part of my research.

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