Steps to Enhance Your Self-Actualization: Express Gratitude and Thanksgiving

Actualized Leader ProfileYears ago I had the honor of working as a research assistant for Dr. Jim Long, Chair of the Psychology Department at Appalachian State University. Dr. Long and I designed a research project that attempted to answer a very simple yet profound question: what factors predict happiness?

To answer this question, we surveyed a number of elderly people who served as our “participants” in the study. We asked them a number of questions that we thought would predict happiness late in life, such as their net worth, family relationships, health, and many, many others. Based on our analysis we were only able to identify one factor that had a statistically significant correlation with happiness (i.e., this factor leads to higher levels of happiness) — gratitude.

Think about that for a moment – it’s not how much money you have in your bank account, it’s whether or not you’re thankful for what you have, that ultimately determines your happiness. I remember one individual – a retired entrepreneur – who was a multi-millionaire and in great health. But, most of his energy was still focused on a business deal from the 1970s that had gone wrong, and the couple of hundred-thousand dollars he had lost (and, how much he estimated that would be worth today.) He had plenty of money and had retired to mountains of North Carolina in excellent health, but was unhappy and bitter.

Your takeaway – As we gather today to give thanks for our many blessings, consider where you currently are on the Gratitude Scale. Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? Expressing gratitude and thankfulness is not only psychologically healthy, it will help ensure that you’re happy and content in life – both now and later – regardless of the size of your bank account.


Steps to Enhance Your Self-Actualization: Humility

Actualized Leader ProfileWe’ve talked about Self-Actualization and the other three motive needs – Achievement, Affiliation and Power – that often inhibit our growth towards higher levels of Self-Actualization. But what about the process of becoming more Self-Actualized? What are some attributes of Self-Actualization and leadership – what I refer to as “Actualized Leaders” – and how can we develop and enhance our own potential?

To begin, if you think you’re Self-Actualized then you probably aren’t. Self-Actualization is a process and a journey – not a destination. It has been my experience that when individuals – whether CEOs or first-year MBA students – think they’ve arrived, they typically have some ego issues that need addressing and resolving. With that in mind, embrace the journey and the process of self-discovery and growth. Don’t fall into the trap of always jumping to conclusions, trying to read minds, or judging others based on stereotypes. Those activities are lazy and often wrong, and ultimately dull our ability to think, challenge, dream and appreciate life and what it has to offer. Zen masters refer to an open and non-judgmental orientation to life as a “beginner’s mind” – an approach to life grounded in humility that makes no assumptions about others or their intentions.

Your takeaway – practice humility everyday by saying “I don’t know,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry” when appropriate. Remember, our tempers often get us into trouble, but it’s our pride that keeps us there. Humility not only allows you to experience more of life with a “beginner’s mind,” it will also get you out of trouble. And if you have a high need for Power, it’s probably important for you to always have the last word. To be more Self-Actualized, try finishing an argument by saying “I’m sorry.”

Self-Actualized Leadership: Which Competing Need Drives Your Style?

Actualized Leader Profile

We have defined self-actualization as the motivation to reach our ultimate potential and explored the other, “lower” needs that must be met before self-actualization can manifest. Before exploring ways to enhance our self-actualization, it is important to understand the other competing needs from a leadership perspective that drive our behavior (and our resulting leadership style.) The three other motive needs are Achievement, Affiliation and Power. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a little more context or “surround sound” (as my colleague Peter Macon likes to say) related to these three competing motive needs. Please note that while these other three needs are positive in many regards, they can actually impede our path to self-actualization.

It’s very likely right now that your current driver – and resulting style – is based primarily on one of these needs: Achievement, Affiliation or Power. If that’s the case, the stronger the need in your style, the more likely it is inhibiting your ability to be more self-actualized.

1. Those with a strong need for Achievement – Achievers – are technical experts who focus on winning. They tend to be very detailed-oriented. In the extreme, they are driven by a “fear of failure” which often makes them micromanagers who are ineffective delegators. To the degree this is true, they stunt their career trajectory because they are viewed as effective contributors but ineffective managers.

2. Those with a strong need for Affiliation – Affirmers – are very warm, friendly, people-oriented individuals who focus more on relationships than results. They tend to be very collaborative. In the extreme, they are driven by a “fear of rejection” which makes them delay making difficult decisions because they tend to avoid conflict. To the degree this is true, they also limit their career growth and personal effectiveness because they are often viewed as too nice or “soft.”

3. People with a strong need for Power – Authoritative – are decisive, confident leaders who are results-oriented. They tend to be more strategic and analytical. In the extreme, they are driven by a “fear of betrayal” which makes them very slow to trust others. In addition, they tend to carry a lot of anger which often erupts when things don’t go as planned. To the degree this is true, they limit their effectiveness and personal growth because of the “co-dependent” relationships they foster by generating fear and anxiety in others.

Which of the above three styles best describes you? Are you currently living or leading from a place of fear – failure, rejection or betrayal? Viktor Frankl and Jerry B. Harvey have warned us about the insidious nature of “paradoxical intent,” which is as follows: The more we fear something, the more likely we are to experience it. Which fear is holding you back? What would be possible in your life if you operated from a position of strength and courage as opposed to fear? If Frankl and Harvey are correct in their contention, what negative outcome are you likely to experience if you continue to fear it?

Self-Actualized Leadership – Where are you on the hierarchy?

Actualized Leader ProfileSelf-actualization – the motivation to reach our ultimate potential – is not just something reserved for the great artists, musicians, and athletes of the world. We can all develop and enhance our capacity to be more self-actualized when we better understand what it is, how it feels, and how to tap into it. In essence, self-actualization is the process of manifesting possibility into actuality; turning our potential into reality.

And I believe this undertaking has enormous consequences for all of us. For if we knowingly choose to be less than we can be, we will never really be happy. That’s a pretty powerful contention. And for me personally, it serves as a great source of motivation. To loosely quote Maslow, if we settle for less than our best, we’ll never be at peace.

Before we discuss strategies for being more self-actualized, it’s important to understand Maslow’s concept of the “hierarchy of needs.” According to Maslow, human motivation is driven by our internal needs. The needs are organized in a hierarchy, with lower level needs at the bottom and higher order needs at the top. The need for self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid and it emerges once our more basic needs have been met. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs from top to bottom follows:


Self Esteem

Social and Belonging



From a human motivation perspective, the lower order needs include food, water, sex, safety, a sense of belonging and self-esteem. From an employment perspective these needs are reflected in a living wage, health insurance and retirement benefits, a safe work environment, membership in a team or working group, and the opportunity for a challenging assignment. Once these lower needs have been satisfied, we are uniquely positioned to experience a more actualized approach in our work lives.

One controversy related to Maslow’s theory is his contention that once a lower need has been met, it loses its power to drive our behavior. But later research, and probably your own observations, contradicts that notion. For example, the need for affiliation or “belonging” is supposed to decrease once it has been met. You can probably think of a number of people (maybe even yourself) who are driven to be liked and accepted by everyone. Or, consider the need for esteem and recognition. Once a person has achieved a certain amount of recognition, this drive should diminish. But how many people do you know who constantly need to be the center of attention? No matter how much attention they get, it’s always “about them.” Having spent a number of years around university faculty, and being one myself, I know all-to-well about fragile professorial egos that need constant stroking. My nephew Wilson says that’s understandable since we’re not “real doctors.”

If you’re serious about becoming more self-actualized and reaching your ultimate potential, you should take stock of your current work environment and ensure that most, if not all, of your more basic needs are being met. Do you currently earn a living wage? Do you have adequate insurance and retirement benefits? Are you a part of a team or work group where you feel connected and valued? Do you receive recognition for a job well done? Do you feel challenged at work?

For a self-actualizing exercise, consider the “hierarchy.” Which need best defines you right now; what need is driving your behavior? Are you stuck? If so, what are the implications for you as a person and as a professional? What change can you make to “put that need to bed” so you can renew your journey towards higher levels of self-actualization and turn your potential into reality?

Self-Actualized Leadership

Welcome to my blog …

Welcome and thank you for your interest in my new blog. I am excited to share this process with you as I will be exploring the concepts of self-actualization, motivation and leadership in weekly posts. The source for my blog posts will be my forthcoming book – “Actualized Leadership: Managing Your Shadow Side” – and each blog will represent an idea from the book.

Please know that I am writing this blog for general interest. This blog is not intended to be only for leaders in organizational settings who want to manage more effectively. Most of the ideas discussed will be relevant for all of us.

Let me start by defining my key terms: Self-Actualization and Leadership. I define self-actualization as “the motivation to develop and realize one’s full capacity and potential.” Although the concept of self-actualization is most closely associated with psychologist Abraham Maslow, it was actually biologist Kurt Goldstein who first used this term in the 1930s. According to Goldstein, self-actualization is the internal driver of organisms to not only survive, but to thrive. Goldstein stated that this drive – the need for actualization – determines the life of an organism. Maslow expanded on this concept from a human motivation perspective, stating that once our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter have been met, higher order needs emerge that drive our behavior. Self-actualization, the need to “be all that we can be,” is the highest need.

To define leadership I will adopt Peter C. Browning‘s definition as the “capacity to elicit the willing collaboration of others towards a worthwhile goal with sustainable results.” While there are many definitions for leadership, I like this definition because it emphasizes “capacity” – something that we can develop and enhance – as well as the notion of “willing collaboration” – which entails influencing others as opposed to telling them what to do because you’re the boss.

We typically think of well-known individuals as examples of self-actualization: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the founding fathers of the United States; Anne Frank’s maturity and capacity for forgiveness during the Holocaust; Pavarotti’s singing or Michael Jordan’s play on the basketball court. While these are all well-known and often cited examples of individuals reaching their highest potential, we all possess an innate seed or kernel of potential waiting to flourish. My focus in this blog is to help you discover ways to become more self-actualized in any setting – especially at work.

So, let’s get started with a simple but very powerful self-actualizing exercise: Write your obituary. Write as if you passed away today. What goals and dreams have you yet to attain? How do you want to be remembered? What difference are you meant to make in this world?

As you read your obituary, consider what you have left undone? If self-actualization determines the potential of an organism, what can you do today to change the trajectory of your life?

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