Dec 26, 2022 3 min read

James MacGregor Burns on Self-Actualization, Self-Esteem and Effective Leadership

Can you teach leadership? What is the link between self-esteem, or the lack thereof, and effective leadership? What about Maslow's notion of self-actualization? These are some of the many questions that American historian and leadership authority James MacGregor Burns explored in his seminal classic Leadership.

Can leadership be taught?

The most practical way to begin to answer this question is also the most theoretical: to define both education and leadership in the broadest and most fundamental way and to understand the vital relationship of the one to the other.

We have conceived of leadership... as the tapping of existing and potential motive and power bases of followers by leaders, for the purpose of achieving intended change. We conceive of education in essentially the same terms.

So viewed, education is not merely the shaping of values, the imparting of “facts” or the teaching of skills, indispensable though these are; it is the total teaching and learning process ... conducted by both teachers and learners, engaging with the total environment, and involving influence over persons’ selves and their opportunities and destinies, not simply their minds.

Ultimately education and leadership shade into each other to become almost inseparable, but only when both are defined as the reciprocal raising of levels of motivation rather than indoctrination or coercion.
Leaders are taskmasters and goal setters, but they and their followers share a particular space and time, a particular set of motivations and values. If they are to be effective in helping to mobilize and elevate their constituencies, leaders must be whole persons, persons with fully functioning capacities for thinking and feeling. The problem for them as educators, as leaders, is not to promote narrow, egocentric self-actualization but to extend awareness of human needs and the means of gratifying them, to improve the larger social situation for which educators or leaders have responsibility and over which they have power. Is it too much to believe that it is “the grand goal of all leadership—to help create or maintain the social harbors for these personal islands?
What does all this mean for the teaching of leadership as opposed to manipulation? “Teachers”—in whatever guise—treat students neither coercively nor instrumentally but as joint seekers of truth and of mutual actualization.

Leading by being led — mutual actualization

Just as self-actualizers are potential leaders at all levels—because of their capacity to grow, their flexibility, their creativity, their competence—the concept of self-actualization is a powerful one for understanding the processes of leadership. Its applicability to leadership has been stultified, however, by an overemphasis on self-actualization rather than mutual actualization with others.

...I suggest that the most marked characteristic of self-actualizers as potential leaders goes beyond Maslow’s self-actualization; it is their capacity to learn from others and from the environment—the capacity to be taught.

That capacity calls for an ability to listen and be guided by others without being threatened by them, to be dependent on others but not overly dependent, to judge other persons with both affection and discrimination, to possess enough autonomy to be creative without rejecting the external influences that make for growth and relevance. Self-actualization ultimately means the ability to lead by being led.

It is this kind of self-actualization that enables leaders to comprehend the needs of potential followers, to enter into their perspectives, and to act on popular needs such as those for material help and for security and esteem. Because leaders themselves are continually going through self-actualization processes, they are able to rise with their followers, usually one step ahead of them, to respond to their transformed needs and thus to help followers move into self-actualization processes.

On leadership and self-esteem

One generalization seems safe on the basis of both systematic and casual observation: the most potent sources of political motivationthe key elements of political ambitionare unfulfilled esteem needs (both self-esteem and esteem by others).

Both power wielders and leaders have such needs. “Because persons with a need for esteem have moved a considerable way up the need hierarchy towards self-actualization,” Knutson notes, “they are especially likely to be active in their social political environment, and to be found in leadership positions.”
And James David Barber believes that the decisive step of candidacy for office, involving great personal risk and sharp change in one’s life and commitments, “is most likely to be taken by two kinds of people: those who have such high self-esteem that they can manage relatively easily the threats and strains and anxieties involved in this change; and those who have such low self-esteem that they are ready to do this extraordinary thing to raise it.”
This potent need for esteem, for prestige, for reputation, for admiration—this need that dwarfs even as it produces the ambition for power—is evident in the careers of “great men,” whether brutal power wielders or leaders.

Burns touches on some very essential and personal aspects of effective leadership in his classic. All leaders and managers would benefit from taking a closer look at their own self-esteem needs, level of self-actualization, ability to enable mutual actualization, and understanding the difference between teaching vs learning in their style of leadership.

Getting better at leading and managing can be a minefield of confusing topics. Where do we start? One place to begin is by understanding the overarching themes and contexts of leadership.

A key theme in Burns's writing referenced above is of leaders understanding what makes human beings tick. It's why mastering the basics of the human domain is critical to becoming an effective leader.


  1. Leadership by James MacGregor Burns.

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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