Provision #684: Needs Matter

Laser Provision

When it comes to leadership, needs matter. Leaders who are more concerned about their own power, position, ego, agenda, perks, pocketbooks, smarts, or solutions, than about the needs of their people and the people they serve are not great leaders at all. Great leaders take a “seventh generation” perspective. We think about the impacts of our decisions not only on the needs of people today but also on the needs of people seven generations in the future. Where are we taking our people? If you haven’t thought about that lately, then read on. You just might get inspired.

LifeTrek Provision


Do you remember “Joe the Plumber”? He is the former employee of an Ohio plumbing contractor who became famous because of his encounter with then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 run for the White House. During the encounter, Joe Wurzelbacher asked Obama if he believed in the American dream and if he was going to face higher taxes under Obama’s tax plan.

Obama explained the nuances of his plan. Some people and businesses, those whose incomes and revenues are in the top 5% of all people and businesses, would pay more (going back to the 39% tax bracket under Bill Clinton). Everyone else would pay the same or less taxes.

That explanation didn’t sit well with Wurzelbacher. If he worked hard and became economically successful, moving into the top 5%, he wanted to keep that money. He therefore proposed a flat tax, in which everyone would pay the same percentage. He thought that would better meet his need as well as his idea of the American dream.

Obama argued that a flat tax would be too hard on those with lower incomes. The system only works if higher income people pay more. I want to “cut takes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need,” Obama explained, “and for the 5% of the folks who are doing very well • even though they•ve been working hard and I appreciate that • I just want to make sure they•re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts.”

That’s when Obama made the “spread the wealth around” comment that his opponents, John McCain and Sarah Palin, jumped on in the campaign. Here is Obama’s comment in context:

“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you•ve got a plumbing business, you•re gonna be better off if you•ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

You can decide for yourself whether or not that comment makes Obama a socialist. For the purposes of our discussion on leadership, however, the exchange between Obama and Wurzelbacher is a classic case of competing needs. Wurzelbacher needed autonomy, opportunity, and economic means. Without denying the importance of those needs, Obama expressed concern for those people “who are most in need.” To help meet that need, Obama put forward a more progressive tax code that, in his opinion, would be “good for everybody.”

That may well have been part of why Obama got elected. He communicated respect for and a willingness to ameliorate the needs of large numbers of people. Needs matter. When leaders recognize and respect the needs of people, they generate positive feelings and get positive results. When leaders fail to recognize and respect the needs of people, it works the other way around.

That’s because feelings and needs are integrally connected. As I described in my last Provision, Feelings Matter, needs generate feelings. There is a causal connection. Great leaders understand this dynamic and pay attention to needs in both explicit and implicit as well as overt and subtle ways. There’s no way for leaders to be too attentive to what’s happening at the level of people’s needs.

Obama tried to do that with “Joe the Plumber.” Without using the words autonomy, opportunity, and economic means, Obama tried to acknowledge and put forward his understanding of Wurzelbacher’s needs. At that moment, Wurzelbacher shook his head in agreement, saying, “Exactly.” Obama then went on to say there were other needs he had to pay attention to as well, at which point the two men engaged in a debate over strategies: flat versus progressive taxes.

Conversations often break down over strategies. Everyone has a different idea. Obama might have fared better with “Joe the Plumber” if he had stayed at the level of needs. The more people feel heard at the level of their needs, the more open they become to new ideas regarding strategies.

Unfortunately, leadership in the Western world is often viewed as a solitary task in which individuals assert their will and ideas on the organizations and people they lead. That’s true regardless of the domain: politics, business, education, and non-profit agencies (to mention only four domains) all tend to work the same way. Leadership is viewed as something claimed by the best and the brightest • “the smartest guys in the room” • rather than as something called for from the people.

Leadership works better when it’s called for from the people. That usually means that people feel inspired and protected in your presence. They are willing to trust you with the things they value most: their needs.

It gets dicey when needs are in apparent conflict. That’s when it’s tempting for leaders to panic and take control: “Look, here’s what we’re going to do.” That may be appropriate in life-and-death situations, but most situations are not (thankfully) life-and-death. So leaders would do well to do more listening and exploring before speaking and acting. The more time we take to understand the needs of our people and those we serve the better our strategies will be.

Often, by listening well, the apparent conflict of needs begins to resolve. That might have happened with Obama and Wurzelbacher. I have seen it happen in far more conflicted and confrontational of settings. When leaders listen well, they often find people expressing needs for:

  • community with each other
  • autonomy and loyalty
  • to be valued by others
  • honesty and openness
  • safety and protection
  • to celebrate life
  • justice and peace
  • the common good

Such needs are not cultural artifacts. They are universal. They arise from being alive as humans, and they connect us with many other life forms. All leaders would therefore do well to notice how these and other needs are running on the playing fields of life and work.

Coaching Inquiries: What needs are you most acutely aware of right now? What are people trying to tell you about how you are treating and respecting their needs? How could you do more listening before taking charge? What would have to change in order for you to get into that frame of mind? Who do you know who models respectful servant leadership? How can you get to know them better?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


I just read your latest Provision, Feelings Matter. Effective communication is a skill/art in which I have long known I had considerable room for growth. Three ex-wives can’t all be wrong! While discussing a recent, difficult communication with a friend they said, “Sometimes being able to lose is actually winning.”

While this indeed profound in an “I Chingy” sort of way, it seems to me that true communication is not about wrong or right, win or lose, but about ultimately furthering your established goals; accomplishing the mission so to speak. If an individual chooses to view every interaction as an intellectual mine is bigger than yours contest, or a chance to hone their bullying skills, all involved have lost before they have even begun and a very real opportunity to truly connect with someone has been missed.


I just read your new book, Evocative Coaching, and I absolutely love it. I have recommended it already to multiple people; I will be recommending it to our entire community. Very sincerely, it is the best book on coaching I have ever read. It just blows me away. I learned so much. You and Megan did a phenomenal job explaining the true heart, and empathy, and what it takes to be a great coach. It is unequivocally the best coaching book I have ever read. Way to go.


Thanks so much for your continuing inspiration and hard work. We received our copy of Evocative Coaching in the mail and I’ve just begun reading • savoring and enjoying the way your coaching fits so effectively with our efforts at Asset Based Community Development. Looking forward to learning more. 


I am delighted to see that your book on coaching in schools has come out. Congratulations. I looked at the table of contents and am now anxious to buy a copy. I have begun coaching teachers in my area and will appreciate the wisdom that you and Megan share through your new release. Thanks.


Your new book has been on my wish list here in Australia, and I have already recommended it to all of my friends in the education sector in the US and elsewhere. Now that I have received my own copy, just flipping through for the first time, it is clear that you and Megan have created a gift for the world that is dense with practical wisdom. I so look forward to immersing myself in this wonderful resource; it will be a valued addition to my professional library.


Although I can only follow your progress from afar, I am very excited by the work you are doing with the Center for School Transformation. Keep the conversation going! 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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