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Social Motives: Why Would You Want to Be a Leader?

Someone must provide the spark for action; someone must provide energy and purpose for leadership to occur. There are three basic motives for leadership:

  1. Power -- the desire to have influence, give orders, and have them carried out;
  2. Achievement -- the need to create and build something of value; and
  3. Affiliation -- a heartfelt interest in helping others.1

To understand the role of social motives at work, imagine three supervisors given the task of building a house: (1) The power-oriented leader focuses on how to organize the production of the house. She feels comfortable being in charge and enjoys being recognized as the powerful figure who causes the house to be produced. (2) The achievement-oriented leader obtains satisfaction from creating the house. Building a sound structure and completing the task on time is rewarding. (3) The affiliation leader enjoys working with his crew. He is concerned with human relations and strives to create a spirit of teamwork. Also, he is pleased to think of how much the home will mean to the family who lives in it.

Why would you want to be a leader? What would be your purpose for assuming the challenge of leadership? Do your job and personal life allow the expression of your social motives? The questionnaire below will help you answer these questions.

Exercise: Social Motives in the Work Setting

Step Two:

Mark the total scores for each column in the appropriate places in Your Social Motives Figure above.


A high score in column 1 indicates social motives that are power-oriented. A power-oriented person strives for leadership because of the authority it brings. This person’s goal is to influence people and events. Historical examples are Winston Churchill and Elizabeth I, who are recognized as outstanding leaders because of their mastery of power politics. Strength, assertiveness, and dominance are characteristics of power-oriented leaders. Positions involving the expression of power are manager, supervisor, and political officeholder.

A high score in column 2 indicates achievement-oriented social motives. This type of leader wants to discover, create, and build. Marie Curie and Tim Berners-Lee are good examples of achievement-oriented people, each succeeding in making valuable contributions to humankind in science and technology. Achievement-oriented leaders are described as successful, competent, skillful, and productive. Achievement-oriented people are often found in occupations such as science, business, and the arts.

A high score in column 3 indicates a strong concern for human welfare. Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi would be such leaders. These individuals care about other people and desire to serve humanity. This type of leader is likely to have traits similar to those of Florence Nightingale and Albert Schweitzer in the field of medicine. Common characteristics of these leaders are helpfulness, unselfishness, and consideration of the condition and well-being of others. Occupations such as teaching and counseling allow the expression of this social motive.

Your Social Motives

Remember three important points about scores on the questionnaire:

  • Although it is normal for everyone to have some of each social motive, a person usually will prefer one or two over the others. Preference depends on the values (power, achievement, or affiliation) promoted by one's culture and on personal traits and experiences.
  • People exert leadership to satisfy one or a combination of these three motives. All leadership can be said to be motivated by power, achievement, or affiliation.
  • As either leader or follower, a person will be most happy and productive in a situation that allows the expression of personal social motives. If an individual's work precludes this, morale and productivity can be expected to go down.

Consider how you as a leader can use an employee's social motives as a motivating force:

  1. The need for power. These employees gain satisfaction from influencing others. They like to lead and persuade, and they are motivated by positions of power. They desire responsibility and like to direct and control people and events. They are comfortable with conflict and debate, and they are not reluctant in advancing their views. Give them the opportunity to make decisions and direct projects.
  2. The need for achievement. These employees want the satisfaction of accomplishing projects successfully. They want to exercise their talents to attain success. They like to solve problems and get the job done. They desire unambiguous feedback on performance and recognition for their accomplishments. They are self-motivated if the job is challenging enough, so provide them with meaningful work assignments and they will consistently produce.
  3. The need for affiliation. These employees gain satisfaction from interacting with others. They enjoy people and find the social aspects of the workplace rewarding. They desire warm and friendly relations, and they prefer cooperative rather than competitive work situations. They actively support others and try to smooth out workplace conflicts. Motivate them by giving them opportunities to interact with others: team projects, group meetings, and so on.2

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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