Self-Actualized Leadership: a formula for success

| Posted in Leadership Blog

Call it a by-product of working toward my doctorate in I/O psychology –as I was revisiting some old notes on Maslow’s concept of self-actualization today, all I could think was “wow, what an excellent measuring stick for today’s leaders!

As you may recall, self-actualization is a concept about satisfying needs as we grow and shift our focus toward grander goals and aspirations. Some call it the full development of an individuals abilities and the realization of our full potential. Abraham Maslow, often referred to as the spiritual father of humanistic and positive psychology, defines self-actualization more simply as “the desire for self-fulfillment,” and believed that people have a natural propensity to move in this direction. The path toward actualization requires the satisfaction of needs that stand lower in an intrinsic hierarchy. His research sought to identify characteristics of psychologically healthy people who achieved self-actualization. In doing so, he proposed five needs, which must be satisfied in order: physiological, safety, belonging and love, esteem and finally self-actualization. (Pause for a moment here and ask yourself “how am I doing at getting these needs met?”)

According to Maslow, self-actualized people are almost always middle-aged or older, are free of neuroses and account for less than one percent of the population (ouch!). Interestingly, his theory was partially based on his own assumptions about human potential and partially on case studies of historical figures such as Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau. Maslow examined the lives of his subjects and found that they were all very accepting of themselves and of their life circumstances; were motivated toward finding solutions to cultural problems rather than to their own personal problems; were open to others’ ideas and opinions; had strong senses of autonomy, human values and appreciation of life; and the capacity for intimacy.

Maslow believed self-actualizers share the following tendencies (Leaders, get out your pen and rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10!):

  1. An objective perception of reality
  2. A full acceptance of their own nature
  3. A commitment and dedication to some kind of work
  4. Simplicity and naturalness of behavior
  5. A need for autonomy, privacy and independence
  6. Intense mystical or peak experiences­
  7. Empathy with and affection for all humanity
  8. Resistance to conformity
  9. A democratic character structure
  10. An attitude of creativeness
  11. And, a high degree of social interest

­­­­So, out of a possible 110 points, how do you stack up? In my experience, it’s difficult to be an engaging, inspiring leader while we’re slugging it out at the “bottom of the pyramid.” In fact, I would suggest that it is near impossible to genuinely and effectively connect, communicate and collaborate if we are distracted by physiological needs, feel unloved (or even worse –unlovable), unsafe, lack confidence or are overly needy in seeking the approval of others. Of course, we may spend a moment here or there struggling in one of these “low-light, low-energy mine shafts of life,” but if our score consistently falls below 88 points (see above) may I suggest that it is time to roll up our sleeves and get down to business formulating and executing a plan to become the leader, the man, the woman (as they say) our (very young) children (and pets) think we are and who we would truly like to be! After all, being an exceptional leader (or exceptional at anything) requires that we be on a path toward self-actualization. Authentic excellence demands at least a reasonably healthy body, mind, and outlook. Remember, research indicates that happiness comes first and leads to the kinds of behaviors that result in success.

Finally, take out that pen again and write down what self-fulfillment means to you — big picture at work, home, everything! Then email yourself a copy with a reminder to enroll a partner: a life partner, a friend, a therapist or a coach who can support you as you create a blueprint to become the well-developed, ethical, Maslow-style, self-actualized leader and person that people want to follow. (Go ahead, put it on your calendar, too!!)

self-actualization leadership - a formula for success


Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2012). A History of Modern Psychology (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Self-actualization. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 19, 2013, from