A summary of Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership by Paul Lawrence

Paul R. Lawrence, of the Harvard Business School, who died in November 2011 at the age of 89, is my academic grandfather.  He chaired the dissertation of Peter B. Vaill who chaired the dissertation of Eric B. Dent.  Paul’s final book, Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership, is not the typical book on leadership.  Some of the interesting research of the past 10 years or so is encompassing the findings from neuroscience, genetics, behavioral psychology, and related fields in understanding leadership.  As with his 2002 book Driven, Lawrence expresses great admiration for Darwin’s work, noting that it has largely been unread, and what has been read has been misunderstood.

The book begins by noting that human beings are understood to have four basic drives (two that we share with the animal kingdom) that impact leadership.  The descriptors line up neatly as A, B, C, and D. 

(A)    the drive to Acquire what one needs for one’s survival and the conception and survival of one’s offspring.

(B)    the drive to Bond; that is, to form long-term, mutually caring and trusting relationships with other people;  (human only)

(C)    the drive to Comprehend; that is, to learn, to create, to innovate, and to make sense of the world and of oneself. (human only)

(D)   the drive to Defend oneself and, as needed, one’s offspring from threats (p. 14).

Lawrence references brain research to contend that the drive to bond and drive to comprehend are separate hard-wirings that don’t exist merely to support our drive to acquire, for example.  Interestingly, of the four drives, the only one that employs logic is the drive to comprehend.  Researchers are changing their minds that emotions and lower-brain stem reactions represent less-developed life forms, and that the presence of the neo-cortex as an instrument of reason is the highest level.  It appears to simply be one way that information is processed.  At the same time that I’ve been reading this book, I’ve also been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.  The two books have interesting parallels, both contending that human logic is primarily used to justify decisions we have already made using emotion, intuition, or some other non-rational process. 

As an aside, both books use the word evolution constantly.  The state of everything today is simply a matter of how evolution has occurred.  When there isn’t support for biological evolution then the answer is social evolution or psychological evolution.  Lawrence even writes that “leadership took the role formerly played by evolution” because it has “become our primary means of adapting to changing circumstances” (p. 4). 

Lawrence suggests that healthy, moral people have a way of keeping all four of the drives in balance.  He uses the analogy of the tripartite model of government for how a human being can function.  He identifies Marc Hauser as the leading scientist in this area whose work has resulted in the following prescriptions for human interaction:

–        Help others rather than harm them.

–        Tell truths, not lies – except for white lies.

–        Keep promises

–        Seek fair exchanges that reflect merit differences.

–        Detect and punish cheaters.

Lawrence’s primary concern seems to be that when the drive to acquire becomes dominant, individuals, companies, and nations become doomed.  He calls People Without Conscience (PWOC) those who lack the drive to bond.  It isn’t clear how such people come into existence, but he surmises that as much as 30 percent of the high-impact leaders have been PWOC.  One basis of this estimate is his own list of the most influential people in history, such as Napoleon, and his own assessment of their drive to bond (missing, in Napoleon’s case).  For purposes of my management history article that was just accepted for publication, he identifies Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt as two of the business tycoons who were PWOC.  Lawrence contends that government, business, and other hierarchies are set up in such a way that PWOC have an easier time climbing the ladder to the top, where they inflict massive damage.  One of his prescriptions is for society to figure out a way to identify PWOC and then prevent them from becoming senior leaders.  Hmmmm.  Lawrence even builds this prevention into his new definition of leadership: “Good/moral leadership is the process of influencing followers by practicing the Golden Rule with all stakeholders in a particular way – that is, by helping them satisfice their four drives in a balanced manner and helping oneself do so as well – while keeping people-w/o-conscience out of power positions” (p. 98).

The corporate form, Lawrence argues, by design, promotes the drive to acquire at the expense of the other drives.  He notes that even the World Trade Organization’s definition of restraint of trade provisions allows corporations to maximize their drive to acquire at the expense of the other drives.  Consequently, “the tiny minority of ‘monsters’ in the population” (p. 128) can easily ascend to the highest levels of corporations (and governments).  All of this has happened unconsciously.  Lawrence points out that “there was never a constitutional convention dedicated to shaping the corporation” (p. 131). 

Lawrence also adds to the tide moving away from agency theory, which he claims “couldn’t be more wrong.  Humans are genetically wired not to be maximizers of self-interest; they are genetically wired to be satisficers of their own interests and other people’s interests, not in order to be good scouts but because that is the very successful survival mechanism which our species has evolved” (p. 180).  He promotes a stakeholder model which should allow for a better balancing of the four drives. 

Lawrence notes that at his age he is taking liberty with some of the data and expressing his hunches and beliefs, such as finding a way to identify PWOC and keep them out of leadership.  He also proposes a rapprochement between science and religion that neither side is likely to be happy with.  Interestingly, he does note that science, in the narrow way it has become to be broadly understood, rests solely on matters of faith.  Moreover, this rapprochement would require scientists to be open to supernatural explanations. 

Before starting the book I had a conversation with Peter Vaill, who was reading it.  He pointed out that what Lawrence has written represents a sea change from the norm in organizational and human development today.  Lawrence’s approach is very deterministic and doesn’t leave much room for all of the education, training, and development that are a large part of society today.  He mentions several times that “PWOC must be stopped!” but never says anything about trying to help them to develop the drive to bond that apparently wasn’t in their wiring.  Lawrence’s prescription is for a structural approach – write corporate rules of engagement (with each other), put in place mechanisms to require people to balance all four drives, select out the PWOC, and so forth.  In my career, I’ve tried to follow the admonition, “let the evidence lead you,” so I have never been wedded to any particular approach.  Lawrence certainly offers many provocative ideas, but most of them are exploratory.  I’ve also spent most of my career working on exploratory topics, so I don’t fault him for that.  It will be interesting to see whether the research “evolves” in such a way that it confirms, or disconfirms Lawrence’s prescriptions.

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