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Your psychology – your leadership

When you lead people, you inevitably work from many assumptions and beliefs about people. Some of these assumptions serves you well, some do not. Some will undermine and sabotage your leadership. After all, when you lead, you are leading people and that entails your ideas about what people are like, what they want, their nature, what you can expect of them, why they are following you, and so on.

This means that when you lead, your leadership is not neutral and cannot be neutral. Your leading is full of assumptions about human nature, human drives and needs, human hopes and dreams, and human communications and relationships. It is also full of unspoken premises in the back of your mind about human psychology. This is why the first task of leadership is to get your psychology right.

Two Psychological Theories

If you are an old time, old-fashion, command-and-control leader, then your assumptions are what we call Theory X premises. You assume people need you, need direction, need to be told, want to be ordered, fear individual and independent thought, fear and hate responsibility, and are basically lazy, irresponsible, and irrational. And, if you believe any of that, then you’ll feel justified to “lead” by commanding, ordering people around, giving lots of advice, and bossing them. And you’ll like doing that! Whether they like you won’t be as important as if they fear you, respect you, salute you, and comply with your demands.

If you are more modern in your thinking, more humanistic, then you will be more of a visionary leader, a facilitative leader, and a participative leader. And by definition, you have a much deeper belief in democracy and equality. You will believe in people and you will basically like people. And you will want the best for them— for them to be thinking, caring, involved, taking responsibility, asking questions, contributing their ideas, and offering insightful creative suggestions. You lead people because you have a vision of the future about their highest and best. And you don’t want to rule over them; you will be the kind of person who wants to rule with them. You want to work with them and through them so that together, you can do and be so much more together than apart. These are the premises of Theory Y.

Both of these kinds of leadership operate from certain principles or premises. Each has its own psychology and each has its own particular structure and form. And when a nation or group is in crisis, when the world is falling down around you, the Command-and-Control leader who can take control in the crisis, who can rally people around a single response— that kind of leader can offer an important value in that context. Yet when things are more normal, when business goes on as usual, when there’s no invading army or external threat, we need leaders who help all of us grow, learn, think, and become more of what we can become. We need democratic leaders who facilitate the synergy that arises from the combined synergy of many, many diversities. We need self-actualizing leaders.

Self-Actualizing Leaders

Apart from times of crisis events, what we mostly need are self-actualizing leaders. We need leaders who do not have all the answers, but who are able to call forth the answering process from all of us. In the first case when there’s a crisis, there’s no time for dialogue, no time for learning, no time for a study group. There’s an immediate threat that demands immediate response and a “strong man” (or “strong woman”) leader. In the second case, which mostly occurs, we need a leader who believes in us and who has the skills to bring out the best in us. The democratic leader, unlike the dictator or general, doesn’t know how to best arrive at the desired outcome, but does have a vision of that desired outcome and can inspire us, awaken us, and enable us to invent it as we go. This is the slow development of democracy. It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time-consuming, and it is the way that a whole group of people grow and move up to a whole new level.

Self-actualizing leaders know that leadership is not about them. Leadership is about the people, the vision, and the future. So they hold a two-fold focus. First, they focus on the required performances (skills, competencies) that are absolutely necessary to achieve the vision. They focus on results—on implementation, on execution, on people being able to do and contribute. Unlike bureaucrats, it’s not about passing time, crossing every t or dotting every i. It is about creating and innovating effective results. Second, they focus on the meaningfulness of those performances. The results and skills must be significant, inspirational, meaningful.

These two things in Neuro-Semantics, meaning and performance, are the two axes that make up or form the model that we call the Self-Actualization Quadrants.3 Things low in meaning and performance are boring, irrelevant, and insignificant. No one will engage in such non-motivating things (Quadrant I). Things that involve top competencies but which are low in meaning will endure for awhile and then people will run out of steam, go “What’s the point?” lose motivation, and give up (II). Things high in inspiration and meaning will get people worked up and passionate, but then after year after year of it coming to nothing, they will become dis-spirited, de-motivated, and give up (III).

That leaves the final quadrant— high in meaning and high in performance— where we are able to actualize our highest and best (IV). This is where we experience “flow” and step into the place where we are “in the zone.” Here everything comes together into a wonderful synergy so that what we do is optimally significant and effective. And this is the place that effective leaders lead. They go there themselves and they envision it as the future of the group.

Jim Collins discovered that great companies that last have high quality leaders (“level 5 leaders”) who have the will (determination, commitment) and humility (a vision beyond their ego, it’s not about them) to facilitate a group of people to become “the best in the world” with their core competencies.4 It takes time, and patience, and determination, and vision, and a set of values so that with every turn of the giant flywheel momentum is built. And because it is a shared vision, they are able to do so much more than any single person can do individually.

Great Companies are characterized by a vision that transcends the individual. It is a vision that truly makes a difference— that is meaningful and that makes meaningful what everybody does to contribute. And great companies are led by great leaders who are able to structure things so that people are growing, learning, having fun, contributing, making a difference, and actualizing their highest and best. In other words, they are leading self-actualizing people.

They key to this and the sign of this is engagement. People are engaged. People are completely and delightfully engaged. They are the right person for the job and are able to actualize their best potentials in that job. The opposite is dis-engagement. And where there is dis-engagement, people are bored and impatient. They feel out-of-alignment with themselves and the company and so they are just barely there in mind and heart, even if they are punched in on the time card. And when you have that, retention will then be a major problem.

Obviously, the culture of a self-actualizing company radically differs from the old rigid bureaucratic culture of a command-and-control leader. Companies that are open and welcoming of a self-actualizing culture have found ways to activate the powers of people— their mental powers (I.Q.), their emotional powers (E.Q.), their linguistic powers and their behavioral powers. And with these powers, they tap into their spiritual (or inspirational) powers (S.Q.).

And what happens then? Well, most of the problems of the old kind of leadership and organizational structure disappear— motivational problems, engagement problems, problems of resistance, rigidity, refusal to change, secrecy, underhanded competition, power relationships, etc. Now the secrets of a well-formed organization will more easily emerge— team spirit, creativity and innovation, openness to change initiatives, people taking responsibility, people looking for and enjoying feedback, etc.

Author: L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., a psychologist who models the psychology of excellence in human performance, author of numerous business and communication books, Games Business Experts Play; Unleashing Leadership, Unleashed, Communication Magic, etc. Dr. Hall co-founded the fields of Neuro-Semantics and Meta-Coaching and has been presenting the content of his third book in self-actualization, Unleashing Leaders, in many different countries.


  1. Abraham Maslow created the paradigm shift in psychology in the late 1930s with his modeling of self-actualizing people. Douglas McGregor then applied that new bright-side or growth psychology to business with his 1960 book, The Human Enterprise, in which he introduced the terminology of Theory X and Theory Y.
  2. See Unleashing Leadership: Self-Actualizing Leaders and Companies (2009).
  3. For more about the Self-Actualization Quadrants, see Unleashed (2007) or Self-Actualization Psychology (2008) by Dr. L. Michael Hall; available through Crown House Publications as well as from Neuro-Semantic Publications.
  4. Jim Collins (2001) introduced five levels of leadership in his book, From Good to Great. New York, Harper Business.