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Why need-based leadership is the shift we need

Need-based leadership is a different way of thinking about leadership and management, moving away from "great man" theory and leader-centric approaches to more closely consider the people affected most.

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Why need-based leadership is the shift we need

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“Leadership is the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” ~ James MacGregor Burns

What is need-based leadership?

Need-based leadership can be simply defined as a relationship whereby the leader’s responsibility is to meet the needs of those in their care.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner have discovered that essentially all people exhibit leadership behaviors. It is a matter of drawing these behaviors out, and behaviors are simply a result of beliefs, thoughts and feelings that may come out of deeper needs. Kouzes and Posner have further established that leadership is everyone’s business. This, developing everyone’s leadership capacity, is the role of a need-based leader.

Need-based leadership is an intentional continual move away from a leader-centric approach, a move toward meeting the needs of future leaders, or what some texts have called “followers.” This approach is the intentional bringing out of existing leadership behaviors in all employees by setting the appropriate conditions for people to be their best selves and sustaining these behaviors.  

The initial study of leadership focused on the traits or characteristics of the leader for selecting what would be a good leader. The academic study of leadership is not that old — some 100 years.

From the beginning of time, however, as with the beginning of academic study in the field, the focus was on what made a leader great. This focus on “the great man” has essentially been discarded in more recent academic study, but the remnants from that starting point strongly remain in our systems and institutions. We seem to continually look for the next person, often still a man, to save us.  

We have seen glimpses of a more people-centric orientation. We have seen messages of the importance of establishing relationships, emotional intelligence in our communications, of putting people first, of management by walking around. But those messages continue to feel like they are coming from people yelling from the bleachers, instead of the players in the game. The voices, no matter how loud, seem to rarely rise above the noise embedded in the past.

We need a new theory of leadership

The pandemic has in some ways created new workplace issues and in some ways only exposed persistent issues. It only takes looking at the local news to see how strong the hold is from those early frames of leadership and their emphasis on productivity and efficiency.

In February 2021, news broke that Amazon, the country’s second-largest private-sector employer after Walmart, had employees seeking to organize a union due to complaints about the workplace environment.

Darryl Richardson was initially delighted when he landed a job as a picker at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to work for Amazon, work for the richest man around,” he told The Guardian. “I thought it would be a nice facility that would treat you right.”

It wasn’t what he thought it would be. “You’re running at a consistent, fast pace,” Richardson said. “You ain’t got time to look around. You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”

Richardson eventually worked with others, unsuccessfully, to unionize on behalf of the dignity of the workers.

If the second-largest US employer, a modern-day digitally transformed juggernaut, is unable to adapt to a new way of working, what does this say about the state of leadership?

Jeff Bezos, who recently retired as CEO to focus on other ventures including space travel, was ranked No. 5 on Fortune magazine’s list of the top 50 leaders of the world in 2017. Pundits have identified Bezos’ leadership style as anywhere from transformational to autocratic.

Bezos himself has stated that his secret is that he relentlessly puts customers first. This appears to have come at the expense of his employees, instead of as an overflow of how the employees are treated. (Bezos acknowledged a need to focus more on employees in an April letter.)

In the sciences and behavioral health professions, we have seen a movement toward meeting client needs. Ultimately, meeting needs is the path to creating a healthy workplace culture. David Marquet has stated, “In healthy cultures people take responsibility for their behavior and leaders take responsibility for the environment. In unhealthy cultures people blame the environment and leaders blame the people.”

People, given the ability to have their needs met, will take ownership of their behavior and will be able to show up as their full, best selves.

For too long in organizations, we have tried to balance two things that are almost diametrically opposed: control and relationships. Scott Barry Kaufman wrote, after studying Abraham Maslow, among other humanistic psychologists:

“My research has convinced me that we all have extraordinary creative, humanitarian, and spiritual possibilities but are often alienated from them because we are so focused on a very narrow slice of who we are. As a result, we aren’t fulfilling our full potential.”

In a focus on meeting workplace needs, leaders will shift this narrow view and create more balance.


Greg Sumpter, Ph.D., is the assistant chief with a juvenile department in Texas. He has been in public service for over 25 years. He has a new book, his third, creating a new theory of leadership influenced by Trust-Based Relational Intervention and motivational interviewing: “Need Based Leadership.” View all of Sumpter’s books.

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