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The Four-Drive Theory

The Four-Drive Theory

Humans have evolved to survive differently from other animals. We have endured as a species because we learned to work in groups and rely on problem-solving skills, rather than brute force, inborn physical capacities and instincts.

The late Harvard Business School Professor Paul R. Lawrence suggested that Darwin’s insights about human drives have largely been ignored. He proposed a theory of human behavior based on “renewed Darwinism” and four key drives:

1. To acquire what we need for survival, conception, and our offspring’s survival. This drive far surpasses our drives to acquire food, water, warmth, and a mate. We are driven to attain things that interest us, give us a sense of identity, and meet our loved ones’ needs.

2. To defend ourselves and our offspring from threats. We’ll protect our family and groups to which we belong, our ideas and beliefs, our sense of pride and hope, and our self-image.

3. To bond and form long-term, mutually caring and trusting relationships with others.

4. To comprehend (to learn, create, innovate, and make sense of the world and our place in it)

Lawrence and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria applied these drives to the business world in Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

Leadership, they noted, must effectively balance these four basic human drives. While other species survive by feeding, mating, fighting and fleeing, humans survive by feeding, mating, fighting, fleeing, befriending and figuring out.

We achieve an optimal state of leadership when we cultivate and consciously manage all four drives. It’s not enough to be mindful of one or two of them. As Lawrence and Nohria wrote:

“We would predict that those who have found ways to satisfy all four drives (at least over time) will feel more fulfilled than those who have focused on some to the exclusion of others.”

Lawrence expanded his theories in Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010), citing contemporary brain research that supports how the four drives influence decision-making and human actions.


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