inward, any individual has the capacity to rise to greatness
"Leadership is a
mysterious and elusive concept. What we read as history is
really the creation of myths. From an ordinary person, society
creates a Napoleon or Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Jr. or Joan
of Arc, someone who acquires mythic status as a shaper of
destiny." - Deepak Chopra
by Deepak Chopra,
September 2002, The School Administrator Online, The Soul of
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Leadership is a mysterious and elusive concept. What we read
as history is really the creation of myths. From an ordinary
person, society creates a Napoleon or Gandhi, a Martin Luther
King Jr. or Joan of Arc, someone who acquires mythic status as
a shaper of destiny.
We know the first steps of how this transformation occurs.
Every group naturally gives rise to leaders who guide their
followers to a shared goal. Yet some leaders fail while others
succeed. Some are destroyed by a flawed strategy or by the
overwhelming stress of their role. And when a crisis arises
that calls for great leaders, there is a constant fear that
such a figure will not appear, leaving the infamous
“leadership vacuum” that has become a chronic problem in
modern society. Are we too suspicious of leaders to make great
ones anymore? The answer lies in the understanding of human
How do leaders emerge from ordinary lives? In the deeper
reality, a family in disarray, a company without vision, a
school without heart or a nation struggling toward a new level
of freedom need to respond to hidden spiritual drives. Once
this is understood, leaders can be made who rise to the
highest levels of greatness. Any person, man or woman, can
begin on the same road, not by being born a leader but by
Our souls offer the highest inspiration at every moment. We
see chaos, but the soul knows that order is more powerful than
disorder. Until we get that message, we fall back on old
habits and stale answers to new challenges. We become stuck in
pointless struggles and confusion. Yet someone who has set out
to become a leader will succeed by cutting through the fog,
using fundamental spiritual rules. A Bill Gates or a Winston
Churchill undertook this journey consciously—however much we
clothe them in mythic status. They have tapped into a source
of truth that remains constant throughout history.
In any group, members act out two basic themes in life—need
and response. If we could see ourselves clearly, each of us
would realize that every day there is:
* something we need, ranging from the primitive need for food
and shelter to the higher needs of self-worth, love and
spiritual meaning; and
* some response to fill that need, ranging from struggle and
competition to creative discovery and divine inspiration.
These two themes dominate our inner life. They override all
external goals, and they are not random. Needs and responses
can be organized in rising order. Lower needs are followed by
higher ones. Lower responses are also followed by higher ones.
(As German playwright Bertolt Brecht declared, “Don’t talk to
me of my soul until you’ve filled my stomach.”) I call this
the hierarchy of need and the hierarchy of response. Putting
the two hierarchies together is the most powerful thing a
leader can do.
illustration by Ralph Butler
For example, extreme political movements (fascism, religious
fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism) draw upon fear, the most
primitive response of a group because it matches the most
primitive need, which is survival. External pressures such as
economic depression, social migration and competitive forces
generally trigger this need. Vaclav Havel, on the other hand,
was a poet called upon to fulfill a country’s need for
self-expression and freedom after the Communists had
suppressed both. Martin Luther King Jr. climbed to an even
higher level of response, that of vision, because a people
needed to acquire meaning and self-worth. Buddha and Christ
offered the highest level of inspiration to fill the universal
need for unity with God.
In hindsight, we realize it took a shift inside Dr. King for
the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be written. The trick is to
see down the road now, to fathom the future as a movement
inside yourself. There is no mystery to this. The ability to
match need and response can be learned. I believe it is
possible to master every level of a group’s inner life,
applying the same knowledge to a family, a school, a
corporation. (One can read father, mother, priest, sage or
president in place of the word “leader.”)
Let me outline the fundamental principles involved:
1. Leaders and followers co-create each other. They form an
invisible spiritual bond. Leaders exist to embody the values
that followers hunger for, while followers exist to fuel the
leader’s vision from inside themselves.
2. A leader is the symbolic soul of the group. The soul is an
archetypal expression of who we are. Everything dynamic about
us comes from this deeper level of spirit. Because individuals
grow from the inside out, so do groups. Sometimes a group
needs a parent or protector, at other times a ruler, muse or
visionary. The leader operates from the soul level to cause
these shifts, which then get expressed on the surface as
3. Inner qualities determine results. The outcome of any
situation is defined in advance by the vision that goes into
solving it. Therefore inner qualities determine all results.
4. A multitude of responses must be known to a leader. The
responses shared by both leaders and followers are
fight/flight, ego, inner direction, knowingness or intuition,
creativity, higher guidance and unity. A mixture of these
responses is arising in our brains every day. One (or more)
response goes into every situation and therefore must be known
by the leader.
5. A leader must understand the hierarchy of needs. Just as
there is a rising hierarchy of responses built into us, there
is a rising hierarchy of needs that the leader must
understand. These are the needs for survival, safety,
achievement, belonging, expression, self-esteem, freedom, love
and spiritual worth. All are inner needs that have evolved
over time in the life of societies.
6. For every need, the right response can be found. This match
is not made randomly—the soul knows how to fulfill any need
with the least effort and struggle. A leader who can tap
directly into this knowledge gains tremendous power, far more
than someone who concentrates only on external goals and
7. Understanding need and response leads to success. The
leader who understands the hierarchies of need and response
will succeed; the leader who aims for only external goals
(money, victory, power) will falter in the area that counts
most—fulfilling the lives of followers.
8. Great leaders are those who can respond from the higher
levels of spirit. They understand that their followers yearn
for freedom, love and spiritual worth. Therefore they respond
with creativity, vision and a sense of unity. But no one
begins at the top. A lower need like the need to feel safe
must be understood first. The problem at hand can be as
trivial as winning a baseball game or as profound as leading a
society out of crisis. By climbing the hierarchy of need, any
group can be made to feel inspired and unified. Great leaders
are in touch with every level of human experience.
9. Leaders give of themselves. They do so by their willingness
not to hide from any response as it is needed. The leader is
also an Everyman. It is just as important to say “I am afraid”
as “I am strong.” Leaders who protect themselves emotionally,
who limit their responses to only a few or who cling to ego
wind up being destroyed. Their success in material terms will
be devoid of inner worth. Present models, which focus on ego
drive and external reward, miss how selfless an effective
leader must be.
10. A leader must be comfortable with disorder. No matter how
complex and confusing a situation looks, leadership is
possible from one simple attitude: Being comfortable with
disorder. Leaders thrive on disorder once they see the hidden
spiritual order that lies beneath. This is the central idea.
One must learn how to manage the fact that hierarchies are
tangled. There is always a jumble of needs and responses that
must be sorted out. Otherwise, groups will be crippled in
turmoil. Fear and survival, competition and creativity, vision
and love make their own demands. Each has a voice, whether we
hear it or not. Yet underneath there is only one voice, the
silent whisper of spirit, which understands everything.
Although, leadership looks immensely complex, the essentials
can be grasped by looking at the following easily learned
Look and listen. Do this with your senses, being an unbiased
observer who has not judged anything in advance, then with
your heart, obeying your truest feelings, and finally with
your soul, responding with vision and creativity.
Empowerment. This comes from self-referral, which is
responsive to feedback but independent of the good or bad
opinion of others. It is process oriented rather than outcome
oriented. It raises the status of leader and follower
Awareness. This means being aware of the following questions
that underlie every challenge: Who am I? What do I want? What
is my life purpose? Leaders must ask these questions of
themselves and inspire their followers to ask for themselves.
Doing. This covers being action-oriented as a role model,
being responsible for the promises one has made and being
persistent, but also having the ability to celebrate and view
any situation with flexibility and humor.
Emotional freedom and empathy. Leaders go beyond melodrama and
crisis reaction, getting rid of emotional toxicity to
understand the deeper needs of their followers, cutting
through fear, depression and the noxious residues of
Responsibility. This means showing initiative, taking mature
risks rather than reckless ones, walking the talk, having
integrity and living up to your inner values.
Synchronicity. This is a mysterious ingredient from the
unconscious that all great leaders harness. Synchronicity is
the ability to create good luck and find reserves of power to
carry a leader beyond predicted outcomes to a higher plane.
Synchronicity is the ultimate ability to connect any need with
an answer from the soul.
A Spark Within
This is the mental template that a leader uses. All models of
leadership give the same general advice to look and listen.
However, it is important to realize that L-E-A-D-E-R-S means
something different at every level. Flexibility is everything.
As new needs reveal themselves, there is a new level of
looking and listening. Immediately the rest of the acronym
also shifts, leading to new action and a higher level of
When the final story is told, leadership is the most crucial
choice one can make. It is the decision to step out of
darkness. Only someone who can find wisdom in the midst of
chaos will be remembered as a great leader. Yet matching needs
and responses is our birthright, built into our brains as well
as our spirit.
In conclusion, a leader may never find occasion to tell
followers why he has enriched their life or raised them to the
level of the soul, yet in his heart he will know that he did
those things for himself. That is enough. Wisdom traditions
define truth as a single spark that burns down the whole
forest. If the leader is willing to be that spark, others will
see it within him. Craving direction, they will value what he
offers, which is the first step toward valuing it in
Deepak Chopra is founder and CEO of the Chopra Center for Well
Being, 7321 Estrella Del Mar, Carlsbad, CA 92009. E-mail:
is the author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, among