Leadership is personal. In a previous Words to Lead by post here in the CONNECT2Lead Blog, we discussed the importance of self-actualization for leaders and their legacy.
In this post, we’ll take another look at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In this view, we’re exploring how leaders self-actualize. Most notably, leaders shift away from concerning themselves with how they’re seen by others. They focus, instead, of how they see themselves.
Assuming the mantle of leadership doesn’t require you to be self-actualizing. But for those who are self-actualizing, leadership is often a natural by-product. Being leaderly also doesn’t require a certain title, rank, position, authority, etc. But the state of self-actualization makes people more leaderly.
Self-Actualization Isn’t about Self
Other-orientation is the link between self-actualization and leadership. This is counter-intuitive when breaking down a term like “self-actualization.” It’s not about ego or self at all. It’s about pursuing something beyond the self. Maslow’s pyramid positions esteem needs before self-actualization. It’s that level that pertains to developing your reputation and earning the admiration and respect of others. Rising above that level means no longer putting as much stock in what others think or recognize.
What’s more, self-actualization isn’t selfish. In seeking new possibilities and unleashing one’s full potential, there’s an acknowledgement of limitations. With that acknowledgement comes the power to transcend those limitations. Doing so requires enabling others and selflessly collaborating with them (because no one can do it all alone!).
“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” - John Maxwell
Although self-actualization is its own reward, the main beneficiaries are those who come next. Leaders who see new possibilities lay the groundwork for an ideal future state they may never, themselves, see. That’s why leaders look beyond their own interests. They build other leaders and enlist others in a shared vison.
Great leaders aren’t great because of their own ideas, efforts, or accomplishments. Great leaders are great because they make an impact for others and with others. A focus on yourself guarantees that your influence and impact will be limited.
Essential Qualities that Define Great Leadership Go Beyond the Leader
To round out our discussion on self-actualization and impact, there are four words or phrases to add to our list of Words to Lead by. We’ll take each of these one-by-one and make the links to leadership:
- Handling ambiguity
- Navigating politics
These Words to Lead by have something in common. They’re all optional, and they’re all misunderstood. Some would say that these qualities interfere with effective leadership.
Handling ambiguity: Conventional wisdom says that leaders provide clarity. Leaders are supposed to reduce ambiguity. That’s true.
Also true: there are always going to be situations where uncertainty, volatility, and ambiguity are unavoidable no matter how much the leader does to get clarity. Our fast-paced world is moving faster than any leader can. It’s impossible to stay ahead of it at all times. Therefore, effective leaders must do both – provide clarity in all possible ways AND deal with ambiguity when it’s unavoidable.
In the realm of possibilities and potential, ambiguity is unavoidable. Ambiguity is an inherent part of self-actualization, developing yourself and helping others develop, crafting a shared vision of the future.
Navigating politics: Even the healthiest organizations have workplace politics in play. The term itself refers to processes and behaviors that use power, position, and social interactions to benefit the organization or individuals within it.
We’d like to think that leaders rise above politics, but the truth is that effective leaders are very aware. They aren’t engaged in manipulations, and they don’t indulge in some of the dirty tactics we may associate with politics. They are, however, savvy and well-networked. They pay attention.
Culture is a direct reflection of unwritten rules, standard practices, and workplace politics. Leaders know and understand this so that they can influence it in service of the shared vision they champion.
Collaboration: It’s a common misperception. People who are highly independent, able to work autonomously, and “in front of the pack” often get rewarded, recognized, and promoted. That causes them to believe that it’s good to be a “lone wolf” or to shoulder more than their fair share of the work.
It’s impossible to lead, though, when you’re unable to trust, rely on, delegate to, consult, and collaborate effectively with others. Not collaborating is one of the most self-limiting choices you can make. You’re just one person, and you can’t possibly know or do everything that’s needed. As a leader, you also won’t retain followers if you disenfranchise others by hoarding the work and decision-making.
People want to work on and struggle for the things they believe in. Depriving them of those opportunities will cause them to lose interest.
Negotiation: Like collaboration, negotiation is part of leadership. Acquiescing to others may preserve harmony (in the short term). Demanding compliance with your way may accelerate productivity (in the short term). Constantly compromising may create a feeling of success (in the short term). But all three options make your job harder in the long term.
Negotiating win/win solutions is harder and takes longer than the alternatives. But the investment of time and effort pays off in long-term, sustainable solutions that everyone feels committed to. It’s worth it to develop strong negotiating skills that will make you and your team more effective.
Equally important is knowing, for yourself, what’s non-negotiable. You have to know what your core values are so you won’t sacrifice them in an exchange for something less important. Self-actualization and effective leadership are more likely when you have clarity of purpose, a values-based set of criteria for making decisions, and an openness to negotiate on the peripheral issues.
When you master handling ambiguity, handling workplace politics, collaborating, and negotiating, you can do more for the people you follow and the people who follow you.
What Are You Doing with and for Your Leaders and Followers ?
If you think leadership is related to “it’s lonely at the top,” you’re doing it wrong! Leadership and self-actualization are not solo acts. You can measure your leadership and unleash your potential by thinking about your impact on others.
Here’s a personal example, one that I’m proud of even though not everyone “gets” what I’m doing or why I’d invest my own time and money in it.
I founded The Sales Experts Channel in 2017. Forming a collaborative community with hundreds of global sales experts raised questions, doubts, and even suspicion from people who didn’t understand my objectives. They asked (some still ask!) questions like these:
- Why would you promote your competitors’ content and brands?
- How are you going to make money from this?
- Aren’t you worried prospects and viewers will prefer other presenters over you?
- What are you really trying to do here?
- Don’t you think you should screen presenters more and pre-approve all content?
- Isn’t that a lot of time and bother you’d be better off avoiding?
- Shouldn’t you focus instead on your own brand and business?
I get it. The Sales Experts Channel does consume a lot of my time. It does more for others’ marketing and business gain than it does for me, personally. It’s also true that I had to reach deep into my own pocket to launch this venture. By design, it has no sponsors and is not a profitable venture. For those reasons alone, what I’m doing could be seen as “bad business.” That’s why outsiders wonder if there’s some hidden motive or secret agenda. I really do get it.
These misunderstandings stem from others’ inability to (or disinterest in) understanding my true motivations. I’m self-actualizing, and it feels good!
I deliberately chose a business model for The Sales Experts Channel that is not profitable. I did this because I needed something more. After all, I already own a very profitable business. In addition to 15 years of entrepreneurial success with People First Productivity Solutions, I’ve also enjoyed lucrative business partnerships, teaching contracts with prestigious universities, and a personal brand that produces income for me as a best-selling author and keynote speaker.
I’ve been pursuing this “something more” for over a decade. For me, the “something more” that matters to me is giving back to the sales community. I’ve enjoyed a variety of give backs, fleetingly, over the years. But I lost enthusiasm for every one of those efforts (starting with my BlogTalk Sales Coaching Radio Show on Saturday mornings – anyone remember that!?) because I kept monetizing these initiatives.
Profit is an extrinsic motivator that, for me, diminished the intrinsic motivation associated with giving something back to the sales community. Once I figured out that a pure, untainted, selfless give back was the outcome I desired, founding The Sales Experts Channel as a non-profit passion project was a no-brainer.
Giving back to the sales community feels really good. I owe so much (including, fundamentally, who I am) to the noble profession of selling. I want, so badly, to make a positive difference for others who choose this field. What I figured out along the way is that there’s only so much impact I can have alone. There’s much more I can offer by facilitating access to hundreds of sales experts who also want to make a difference and have unique perspectives and a breadth of wisdom.
Self-actualizing by unleashing the potential of a collaborative community has been tremendously gratifying. Every week I get feedback from people in the sales community who discover The Sales Experts Channel. They learn from presenters, get inspired, have greater success because of something we offered, and are enriched by this resource. At least once a month, I also hear from Sales Experts about the benefits they’re getting from knowing and working with each other. In an industry that can, at times, be cut-throat and ego-driven, this is also gratifying.
It’s not always easy. There are tedious details to address, many moving parts to coordinate, and a variety of personalities and issues to wrangle every day. I’ve assembled a talented team to manage the Channel but, even so, I often have to find time, shell out for unexpected expenses, resolve conflicts, etc. Not everyone is happy with every decision I make. Some simply don’t want to collaborate, join for the “wrong” reasons, or make ego-driven demands that we can’t accommodate.
Nevertheless, I see a greater good and tremendous potential. That overrides the noise and distractions and naysayers who just don’t get it. Their opinions matter far less to me than the self-actualizing pursuit of something bigger than myself. I honestly believe they’re the ones who are missing out! But I also realize that self-actualization isn’t for everyone. Maslow thought that less than 2% choose and pursue self-actualization. I don’t know how or why I fell into this 2% or if it’s where I ought to be. I just know it suits me at this point in my life, and I’m all in on self-actualizing through The Sales Experts Channel and in other ways, too.
What are you doing? It’s not essential for you to self-actualize. As a leader, though, it’s important to consider what you will do WITH and FOR the people you lead. As a follower, it’s equally important to make conscious choices about what you will do with and for leaders you follow (formally or informally). As collaborators and colleagues, we can be deliberate in these decisions with our peers, too, when we’re neither leading nor following.
Like everything related to effective leadership, it all comes down to your behavioral choices.
- How you handle ambiguity is a choice. That choice is separate from how you feel about ambiguity.
- What you do to navigate relationships, conflict, and workplace politics is also a choice. Don’t let your emotions take over your reason. To make good behavioral choices, look at situations objectively.
- Collaboration is impossible without behavioral choices that dignify others. Other-orientation enables you to see others’ perspectives and a bigger picture.
- In order to negotiate effectively, you also have to make smart choices. You have to elevate your thinking above here-and-now, emotional responses, and win/lose thinking.
What qualities and behaviors are you choosing in your leadership?