According to Abraham Maslow and extensions from his theory,
- A musician must make music,
- An artist must paint,
- A poet must write,
- A gardener must plant,
- A traveler must wander,
- A leader must lead,
- And you must be you.
Maslow called it self-actualization. It’s an inner satisfaction that comes from pursuing “your bliss” (Joseph Campbell). It’s a state where you’re no longer motivated by what other people think of you. Instead, you are driven by something deeper and are bringing your talents and potential into the light. Some describe this as their calling, others call it their passion.
When you are self-actualizing, you feel compelled by a need to become whatever you believe you have the potential to be. You have a fuller knowledge and vision of what you want to be and can be. You also find a congruence between what you do and what fuels you.
What does this have to do with leadership and Words to Lead by? Everything. Leadership is personal. It’s an art, interpreted and expressed individually. Leaders are self-actualizing because they seen new possibilities and are hoping to transcend the present conditions and limitations to achieve something more.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for Leaders
Take a fresh look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, illustrated below. He described the four lowest bands in the pyramid as basic human needs. We all want, need, and strive to get these needs met. We work our way up the pyramid throughout our lives. Once we have our basic physiological needs met, we seek safety and stability. Then we build satisfying emotional connections and establish ourselves in groups. Over time, we develop self-esteem and earn the esteem of others for our accomplishments, character, and/or behaviors.
Many people stop here. They’re satisfied by having those basic needs met. Although everyone has the ability and occasional urges to self-actualize, not all pursue those peak experiences. Maslow described the resistance to explore one’s own full, unbound potential as “aborted self-actualization.”
Self-actualizing is a choice. Not everyone chooses to self-actualize.
- Some choose to settle into the comforts of the reputation they’ve built, content with the title or position they’ve acquired. It’s why a lot of experts, public figures, and professionals rest on their laurels. They look back, not ahead. They worked hard to get the esteem they have (or had), and they cling to it.
- Some resist self-actualization because they’re afraid to take the plunge. Shedding the shackles of others’ opinions feels risky. Once conditioned to care about how others perceive us, it can be difficult to break habits related to making choices in order to satisfy or impress others. Giving credence, instead, to what you think of yourself is not an easy thing to do at first.
- Some deny themselves the opportunity to self-actualize because they’re mired in busy work, tasks, and burdens that consume all their time and attention. The focus on doing more interferes with the opportunity to focus on being something more. This is true for a lot of senior managers and high achievers.
- Some miss out on self-actualization because they get diverted by distractions. Creature comforts and a cushy lifestyle can lull you into a certain sense of satisfaction. Being entertained is a passive state, taking time that could otherwise be allocated for self-actualization.
Leaders, by contrast, more often describe themselves as answering a higher calling. They stretch and challenge themselves to explore the outer limits of their own potential. They push themselves to pursue a vision. They have a burning desire to become something more (not just to do something more).
What’s more, leaders challenge others and unleash their potential, too.
"The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership." - Harvey S. Firestone
For some leaders, self-actualization comes from developing and igniting sparks in others. They are motivated by seeing others thrive. They are gratified by the success of others. They want their legacy to live on through others who will carry the torch because they, too, passionately pursue something more than what they currently are.
This is one of the primary differences between leadership and management. Managers, by their very job description, are supposed to get today’s work done well. They prioritize and reward performance in the short-term. They don’t cultivate growth and development. They don’t notice and nurture individuals’ internal sparks and passions. They don’t encourage peak experiences because they focus on achievement and status that’s measurable, repeatable, and apparent in the present.
Leaders look at the long term. They enlist others in a shared vision for the future, and they show others how their own self-interests and passions can be served by and aligned with that vision.
According to Maslow, self-actualization is a healthy state. It is its own reward. It’s worth pursuing.
What Does It Look Like When You Reach the Pinnacle as a Leader?
Wondering whether or not you’re on the path toward self-actualization? Here’s a checklist, direct from Maslow’s work from 1954 called Self-Actualizing People: a Study of Psychological Health. Self-actualizing people:
- are very perceptive. They are good judges of character and understand others’ motives. They detect dishonesty quickly and are highly discerning. As a result, they make good decisions.
- are accepting. They accept their own limitations and failings without being consumed by guilt, shame, or anxiety. They accept others’ shortcomings, too, in a matter-of-fact manner that is non-judgmental and objective.
- tend to be more spontaneous. They make natural, simple, confident choices without over-thinking them. They are not impulsive, but they do act quickly and confidently.
- are not ego-driven. Personal issues are less interesting to them than bigger, external problems. Their mission or vision demands their attention and energy, keeping them from stewing about how they are perceived or worrying about what they will get.
- are comfortable on their own. They don’t need to be surrounded by other people or to get validation from others.
- autonomous and independent. The drive for personal growth and entelchy (realizing their full potential) overrides social, cultural, and environmental influences.
- have a sense of wonder. They notice and appreciate what most take for granted. They appreciate, take pleasure in, and are awed by the world around them.
- enjoy more peak experiences than others do. Maslow and others describe peak experiences as moments of pure joy and elation. These moments are characterized by a depth of feeling and profound significance that make them stand out. They are fulfilling and, often, spiritual.
- have a broader sense of identity. People progress from identifying with themselves to identifying with groups (family, religious, social, political, etc.). Self-actualization is marked by a more expansive identification with all humanity vs. sub-divisions.
- strong interpersonal relationships. They may focus on quality vs. quantity, forming deeper bonds with a select few individuals. Without ego boundaries, they seem able to love unselfishly.
- reject being classified. Identifying with the whole of humanity, they are less aware of and less interested in classifications like education, social status, political beliefs, race, gender, etc.
- highly creative. They are more like young children in expressing themselves creatively without concern for others’ judgment of their creations. They are free, playful, and spontaneous in generating new ideas and experimenting in a creative process.
- have a strong sense of their values. Their acceptance of themselves and others are apparent in their values, as is their disdain for divisiveness and temporal problems.
- tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty well. They are confident in themselves and their ability to work through the unknown.
- have a good sense of humor. They don’t take themselves too seriously because they accept themselves and others for what they are.
These are a mix of attitudes that precede self-actualization and outcomes of self-actualization. You need, for example, to become less ego-driven and more accepting to self-actualize. When you do, you will develop a broader sense of identity and become more independent.
Reaching the pinnacle and enjoying more peak experiences comes with knowing and embracing your purpose or higher calling. It comes with pursuing, without abandon, your passions and full potential. It comes, for leaders, when the ideal of leadership shifts from being served to serving others.
The new book by Patrick Lencioni addresses this. The Motive is a fable that aptly contrasts these two motivations for leading. One is based in the acquisition of esteem. The other is transcendent and aligned with self-actualization.
Getting there looks pretty good. Understanding how to get there brings us back to Words to Lead by, the CONNECT2Lead series about becoming the leader you want to be.
To Self-Actualize, Keep Adding to Your Behaviors and Leadership Qualities List
Self-actualizing, according to researchers, comes easier when you make certain behavioral choices that are liberating. Leaders, too, rely on behaviors to develop themselves and others and to be more effective in their pursuits. The behaviors associated with self-actualization are:
- Experiencing life like a child, observing and absorbing more of what’s around you.
- Trying new things instead of staying inside your comfort zone.
- Tuning in to your own feelings as you evaluate information and experiences rather than being carried along by tradition, habits, authority, or the majority.
- Avoiding pretenses, game-playing, and inauthentic positioning.
- Expressing views that may not coincide with the majority and accepting that doing so could make you unpopular.
- Taking responsibility for outcomes and working hard to achieve them.
- Identifying your own defensiveness and rationalizations and tearing them down instead of hiding behind them.
Self-actualizing behaviors (listed above) are easier to adopt when you develop certain leadership qualities. We’ll add these to the leadership qualities list we’ve been building over time throughout this series.
- Learning agility
- Strategic Thinking
- Innovative Spirit
- Mentoring Mindset
Leadership, and everything about it, is a choice. What behaviors and characteristics will you choose for yourself as you ascend the pyramid toward self-actualization?