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How Your Six Basic Human Needs Affect Your Leadership Style

When I work with a new Unstuck Leader client, the first thing we do is a needs analysis.

Before we can begin to understand the limiting patterns of belief and behavior that may be keeping us stuck, we have to understand how we are fulfilling, or not fulfilling our six human needs. These needs drive our behavior, whether we’re aware of them or not. And each of us prioritizes their fulfillment in different ways, which can be positive or negative, and can lead to internal and external conflict.

Let’s start with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you’ve ever taken a marketing or psychology class, you’ve probably heard of it.

Our lowest level needs are Physiological. To survive, we all need food, water, shelter, oxygen, rest, activity. Next, are our Safety needs. We need to be protected from potentially dangerous objects or situations, both physically and psychologically. Next are our needs for Love and Belonging. We need to give and receive love, affection, trust and acceptance. And we need to feel that we’re a part of a community. Our next set of needs are for Esteem. We need to know that we matter, we’re respected and that we’re competent. At the top, is the need for Self-Actualization. This is the need to reach our ultimate potential.

Even if you learned the Pyramid of needs in school, you may not know that later in life, Maslow went back and added three more needs.

The first was the need for Transcendence. This is the need to help others self-actualize and reach their full potential. He also added the Aesthetic needs. This is the need to have beauty in our lives. Art, nature, symmetry, balance, order and form all meet our aesthetic needs. He also added the Knowing and Understanding needs. We need to have our curiosity satisfied. We need to explore. We need meaning.

The six human needs we talk about in Strategic Intervention, the tradition of coaching I practice, are complementary to Maslow’s hierarchy.

We see the physiological needs as the need for Certainty. We see the need for love and belonging exactly as Maslow did, only we tend to call it Love and Connection. The esteem needs are referred to as the need for Significance. The cognitive and aesthetic needs are called the need for Variety (or uncertainty). The need for self-actualization is referred to as the need for Growth and the need for transcendence is referred to as the need for Contribution.

The first four, certainty, love and connection, significance and variety are the base-level needs. Everyone experiences them. The top two needs, growth and contribution, are the higher-level, or spiritual needs. Generally, you have to be doing pretty well at meeting the base-level needs before you put your focus on the higher-level needs.

Let’s have a look at each of the needs in greater detail.


As I wrote in a previous post, certainty is the trickiest of all the needs, because it arises from the most primitive parts of our brains – the reptilian brain, who is mostly interested in keeping the lights on, and the limbic system or paleomammalian brain, where our emotions reside. The trouble with certainty is that we are biologically built for survival, not truth. And our judgements are often faulty as a result.

Words we use when talking about certainty are comfort, security, stability, feeling grounded, predictability, safe and protected.

There’s nothing inherently bad about our need for certainty. It can most definitely keep us from making dumb-ass decisions. But it can also cause us to engage in behaviors that are self-destructive. And those behaviors are the result of fear. Staying in a dead-end job, going along to get along, remaining in an unsatisfying relationship and other inauthentic behaviors are the result of a high need for certainty.

Leaders who demand certainty are likely to lead risk-averse organizations where creativity and innovation are stifled. When shit happens, and things don’t go to plan, the certainty-needing leader may resort to blame and finger-pointing, even if circumstances are beyond anyone’s control. In addition to feeling near constant fear, these leaders are also frequently frustrated by, and in constant battle with, the world’s inherent uncertainty. They are, in effect, condemned to a lifetime of pain and isolation.

Unstuck Leaders know that their job is to give employees certainty within the inevitable uncertainty. That doesn’t mean lying or telling nice stories or giving them false confidence or reassurance. It means giving employees the only kind of certainty that matters. The certainty of values, purpose, mission and vision. And it means showing them how to grow those things within themselves as well as within the organization and community as a whole.


We need new things in our lives. We need variety to feel joy, to be creative and to be innovative. If someone is caught in a dull day-to-day routine, they will just naturally begin seeking change and looking for uncertainty, even if it’s completely unrelated to their work. We do this because we need variety to feel alive.

Words we use when talking about variety are fear (watching a scary movie can make you feel alive), suspense, change, entertainment, newness, excitement, conflict and crisis.

Positive ways of meeting our need for variety include reading and learning new things, creating art, trying different foods, meeting new people, challenging ourselves with a new project. Sometimes, Netflix will do the trick.

Other ways of getting variety include risky behaviors such as extremely dangerous sports (think base-jumping or ice wall climbing). We can get variety from food and that’s fine, unless we become overdependent on food for this purpose and end up overeating on a regular basis. Drugs and alcohol can be excellent sources of variety because they make the world seem different. Risky sexual behaviors and other forms of compulsivity such as shoplifting, or overspending provide variety. Creating drama is a fantastic source of variety. If you have someone in your life who likes to create a lot of drama, chances are, they’re bored off their ass.

Leaders with a high need for variety can be exhausting to work with as they leap around from project to project and interest to interest. They change their minds rapidly and constantly, leaving employees trying to keep up.

Unstuck Leaders love variety too. They find it everywhere. They’re interested in people and places and ideas. They never stop learning and are able to bring together disparate fields of knowledge and information into ground breaking strategies and products. In other words, Unstuck Leaders channel their need for variety into growth.


Significance is a double-edged sword. A high need for significance can lead you to achieve amazing, seemingly impossible things. And that’s great, if those things benefit others. Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jane Goodall have a high need for significance. But so does Harvey Weinstein. Nuff said.

Words we use for significance are pride, importance, standards (if someone has really high standards, that’s a significance thing), achievement and performance. Perfectionism is also a significance thing. And so is competitiveness.

We fulfill our need for significance in positive ways by creating or building things, helping others or doing meaningful work. Or, we can fulfill this need by tearing someone else down. We can become showboaty or boastful. We can demand respect and attention.

Our culture places great emphasis on the significance of leaders. We co-create unhealthy narcissism in the people in charge by worshiping them as visionaries and operators while simultaneously not calling them out for poor behavior. Unchecked, the leader is unable to see beyond their own needs. Nothing matters but their own gratification leading to shallow values and minimal intellectual interest. This is the anathema to functioning in a complex adaptive system where generative listening and understanding are imperatives.

An Unstuck Leader learns to transcend their need for significance. They are more interested in the idea than who came up with it. They are more interested in the result than accolades for performance. They focus on contribution.

Love and Connection

Everyone strives for love and connection. This need continues throughout our lives. Even if we don’t experience romantic love, we can feel connected to others through service in our community and workplace.

Words we use for love and connection are togetherness, unity, warmth, tenderness, desire, passion and cherishing (which is a lovely word, don’t you think?).

Positive ways of meeting this need are being a devoted friend, cultivating family relationships, or if that’s not the right thing for you, building a new family from your circle of friends. You can meet this need through volunteering, being a part of a well-functioning team and of course, through a healthy romantic relationship. Negative ways of meeting your need for love and connection are being manipulative, demanding love, being duplicitous or overly needy.

As anyone who’s ever watched The Office knows, leaders who are overly needy and require their employees and colleagues to love them, are going to get stuck. Great team camaraderie is one thing, but when a leader needs to be loved, it affects their ability to make good decisions as they can be easily manipulated by shrewd players. Also, when a needy leader feels they’re not getting the love they deserve, it can reduce their productivity and/or make them vindictive toward those who they consider to be the guilty, love-withholding team members.

At work, an Unstuck Leader focusses on connection, not love. They make an effort to understand the people they work with. They’re deeply empathetic and are able to understand the complexities of the organization from multiple perspectives. This creates loyal employees who then develop deep knowledge and experience, making them better prepared to adapt to changes and challenges in the systems they’re a part of.


Growth is a higher form of variety seeking. Variety is about happiness. It’s fleeting. Growth (and contribution, which we’ll discuss next) is about fulfillment. It’s lasting. What makes growth fulfilling is its grounding in intention.

We need to constantly develop – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. All the good things in life, be they healthy relationships, happiness or love must be cultivated, developed and expanded or they go away.

Words we use when talking about growth are learning, expanding, evolving, developing, improving, advancing and stretching.

The positive ways of meeting this need are endless. Taking courses, reading, travelling, volunteering. Making connections with new kinds of people., encountering new situations and challenges. Unless our need for growth causes us to ignore our base level needs, or if we become overly obsessive on a topic in a way that damages other parts of our lives, there really aren’t any negative ways to meet this need.

An Unstuck Leader is always growing and they encourage team members to invest in self-growth as well. The organization becomes a learning organization. Creativity, innovation and teamwork flourish. Problems are solved quickly, and often, are anticipated before they even develop.


I love contribution. It’s the grandmother of all the other needs.

Contribution is the need to go beyond yourself and your needs to give to others. It is the very essence of an Unstuck Leader.

Without contribution, life is incomplete. And though it’s essential to fulfillment and happiness, many people never focus here. They stay wrapped up in their lower needs for certainty and significance and never move beyond. But here’s the thing: when we focus on something beyond ourselves, most of our problems and sources of pain become less significant. There’s a magic that happens when you get outside of yourself and focus on what’s going on with other people.

Words we use when talking about contribution are giving, volunteering, caring, empathy, compassion, grace and philanthropy.

My favorite thing about contribution is that it regulates all the other needs.

If we’re focused on contribution we have the certainty of knowing we’re on the right path. This is the only real form of certainty, because all other forms are an illusion. They can go away at any moment. But the certainty of knowing we’re living the life we were meant to live is pretty special. We get variety, because by nature, contribution is highly interactive. We’re helping other people. And depending on the kind of contribution we choose, we can get variety from creative problem solving as well. We feel significant because we know we’re having a positive impact on the world. We experience love and connection from the spiritual bond that comes from helping others. And we grow from figuring out creative, ingenious ways of helping others. We also gain a greater understanding of ourselves in the process.

Your Turn

Take some time to think about your needs, and all the healthy and unhealthy ways you choose to meet them*. Are you creating limitations for yourself? What are the correlating negative patterns of belief and behavior? How might you break them?

*Hint: look at the areas in your life where you feel stuck.

Next week, we’ll talk about values. Needs and values are inextricably linked, and critical to the well-being and effectiveness of the Unstuck Leader.

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