Becoming a leader

Jim was elated when he told his wife about his promotion to chief engineer. He had worked hard at the station for several years and saw the new assignment as his just reward. His 7-year-old son was listening to the conversation. After a time, he asked, “Does the mean you don’t have to fix things now, Dad?” “Not exactly,” his father replied. “Now my problems will be with people, not equipment.” Little did he know then how true that statement would be.

As the leader of a group of people, Jim will be faced with resolving software (people) problems rather than hardware (equipment) problems. It goes without saying that Jim will no longer be able to apply the engineer’s time-tested repair techniques of hitting, kicking or just replacing the defective device.

The jubilation of acquiring a leadership title like supervisor, CE or manager often quickly turns to frustration. This is especially the case when someone who may have spent years training on technical issues suddenly becomes responsible for managing people. The most proficient maintenance engineer can make a lousy CE. Technical training alone does not equip you to be a good leader. And, unfortunately, union shop rules are often responsible for the least qualified (in terms of people skills) being promoted to management positions. Unfortunately, today’s tight budgets seldom provide training funds to help people learn the people skills that would help them more quickly become good leaders.

Born leaders

The adage “Leaders are born, not made" is simply not true. Historically, leadership was based on social class. Positions of leadership were vested within families. Authority was simply passed down the family tree. Such divisions made it almost impossible for just anyone to become a leader. Although upbringing and environment may affect how easily a person handles changes in workplace duties, there is nothing to prevent you from becoming an effective leader.

Social research verifies that birth characteristics have little to do with whether you become an effective leader. What does make a difference is whether you can help others satisfy their own needs while meeting those of the larger organization — the company.

The hierarchy of needs

Figure 1 to the right shows a pyramid illustrating the hierarchy of the five basic levels of human needs. A pyramid is used because the human needs must be met in order, and each one builds upon the others. The concept was formulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, yet it remains as valid today as when he discussed it. Let’s look more closely at the basic human needs he identified and how they relate to the workplace.

Level-one needs are the most important because they must be satisfied before a person will be motivated to satisfy the next higher level. Level-one needs include shelter, food, water, air, and even sex. Today, we could say this need level also includes an adequate salary. This level of needs is satisfied for about 95 percent of the U.S. population.

Level-two needs focus on a person’s safety and security. These may include things like a home, job security, life insurance or tenure. This need level is met for about 75 percent of American workers. It is important to recognize that levels one and two are met primarily through company policy. As such, a leader may have little control over these aspects of a person’s environment.

Today’s workers are primarily focused on satisfying their level three, four and five needs. Level-three needs are socially based and include friendship, family, belonging to a group, associations, hobbies and recreation. We see much of these needs now being met through electronic communication and associations. Those may include such electronic groups as Facebook, MySpace and personal blogs. Level three needs are met for about 45 percent of our population.

Level four, which addresses self esteem or ego, embodies a person’s need for achievement, competition, challenge, power, status or prestige and awards. Perhaps 20 percent of the workforce has these needs met. An effective leader will leverage a person’s desire to have these needs met to motivate a staff.

The pyramid’s peak, level five, represents a person’s desire for self-fulfillment, contentment. This is where one perceives themselves as having “arrived” or “being free.” A mere 5 percent of the workforce ever reaches this level. This level is often referred to in financial terms as being a safe retirement. That’s the point where one has sufficient money in savings that he or she can quit work and still have enough money to enjoy a particular lifestyle. However, this level represents much more than just how much money a person makes. A person may still be working and have reached this level. A synonym would be nirvana.

Outside fulfillment

Most jobs today satisfy the human needs in levels one and two. Minimum-wage laws take care of the money issue (level one), and unions protect workers from being fired (level two). This means that trying to affect employee behavior through the first two levels of needs is seldom effective.

Unfortunately, the workplace does not always provide opportunities for workers to satisfy the needs of levels three, four and five. This is especially the case with entry-level jobs. Rigidly-defined or routine jobs and areas in which the tasks are totally controlled restrict the ability of a person to satisfy these basic needs.

Workers who are unable to satisfy levels three, four and five needs on the job will seek those opportunities outside the workplace. Social interaction (level three), achievement (level four) and self-fulfillment (level five) needs can be met outside the job. Hobbies, sports activities and social clubs often provide sufficient organized structure that allow a person to satisfy these needs.

You may assume that it would be advantageous for employees to satisfy their needs outside the workplace. However, those who do so will become underachievers at work, expending just enough energy to keep their jobs and receive their pay, which they will use for the things that do satisfy their particular needs.

Effective leadership

One problem with the discussion of motivational theories is that it is difficult to visualize them in practice. However, understanding the basic theory is only the first step. Over the next few articles, we’ll develop some specific tools you can use to become a more effective leader.

For those of you not yet in leadership positions, stay tuned. Career development depends, in part, upon your being prepared for advancement. In this series of articles, I'll give you some practical suggestions.