In the 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow popularized a hierarchy of individual needs that culminated in what he characterized as a basic human desire for self-actualization. His theory was premised on an understanding of people as wanting to reach both personal fulfillment and a connection with the external world. He saw self-actualization as an end state in which people found meaning in their lives and used their personal self-fulfillment in positive ways as they lived within their environments. But clearly, his focal attention was on the individual more than on the society in which the individual operated.
Maslow’s theory has come to embody over time a person-centric view of the world. We take for granted today that what I need as an individual should be respected, perhaps even first and foremost over what is right and good for a larger group. This focus on individualism tends to fracture us into small groups that shift as we find allegiances that do or don’t quite match our personal interests. While Maslow’s intent was undoubtedly not to drive a ‘me-first’ mentality, his theory has sometimes been used to justify such a focus.
Contrast Maslow’s focus with philosophies that emphasize the individual as an element of a community, and the game changes. They argue that giving up some ‘self’ to the greater good of the community is where ‘actualization’ thrives.
Columnist David Brooks took on this divergence in a recent New York Times Op Ed piece. He uses the example of a marriage to demonstrate that when two people meld into a single unit called a marriage, their very identities as individuals change. He states that “in giving to the unit, you are giving to a piece of yourself.” Thus, actualization becomes the domain of the unit more than the individual.
Why do you care about this philosophical argument? Each of us, as leaders, must answer fundamental questions that drive our behavior and create our leadership personas:
- What do I want to achieve in my life?
- What legacy do I want to leave?
- Who will benefit from my actions as a leader? Who, by contrast, will be left behind?
- Where will I choose to place my energies?
Questions like these are informed by our viewpoint about the ‘rightness’ of a fundamental philosophy of being. If we believe that self-actualization is an important goal in our lives, will we tend to move less toward collective benefit and more toward personal benefit? We may do so without it being the least bit of a conscious choice. What might this look like in our worlds?
- Have you made choices to accept leadership roles, with the justifiable intent of expanding your learning and capability, when you knew someone else would be a better fit and produce better results for the organization?
- Have you sought fairness for yourself in a situation, even when it wasn’t crucial or even representative of what others needed?
- Have you led your team toward your vision of the future, or toward a jointly developed vision?
- When you’ve been recognized for something, have you been able to clearly articulate the role others have contributed to that success – and was that joint success intentionally created from the start?
Brooks trots out a seldom-used word to describe what could be a new way of ‘actualizing’. He talks about ‘covenants’, the bonds and pledges between people that demonstrate commitment; that signify a willingness to give to something larger than the self. Methinks he talks about leadership – building covenants with each other to support, grow, and actualize together – not as individuals, but as a holistic and healthy community. Maybe it’s time to think of actualization as a group activity. Maybe leadership isn’t about the actualized, heroically wonderful leader, but about a way we all move together toward common goals, in synch, with trust, reaching out to lift each other up.
Maybe Maslow’s day has passed.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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