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Self-actualization and Leadership: From “I” to “We"

Abraham Maslow is well known for his hierarchy of needs. In his content theory of motivation, Maslow proposed five basic levels of human needs which become motivators for human action as, we, humans are innately urged to cover these needs. From the bottom of the pyramid to its tip, he created five layers of needs categorized from the most basic to sustain life (physiological and safety needs) to the higher ones which aim at satisfying our need for community (need to belong to a social group) achievement or recognition from our social group (esteem needs) and finally, the highest one (self-actualization) which satisfies our innate need for self-growth and self-fulfillment through betterment of ourselves(self-actualization need). These needs vary from person to person depending on their personal interests and desires. One person may desire to become the ideal mother, another one a painter and so on.

However, what is not widely known, and I would like to accentuate in this blog today, is that Maslow, in his later works and journal entries1, amended his model by moving to a level beyond self-actualization, which he calls “selfless-actualization" and which is achieved when people transcend their self-identity.

Academic research defines self-transcendence as a higher state of consciousness whereby an individual has surmounted self-interest and is oriented toward a broadened life perspective and purposes,² often engaging in service to others. It implies a capacity to extend oneself beyond personal concerns and reach out to connect with a larger reality in order to discover the true self.

The acceptance or realization -choose the word that best resonates with you - that self-actualization is not an end-goal in itself but a transitional goal in the process of achieving a higher level of human development, carries two important implications. First, that the improvement of our personality should not be the main focus of human development efforts; and second, that we are not a closed system aimed at maintaining, or restoring an inner equilibrium by reducing tensions created when interacting with our environment³.

On the contrary, being human means to be open to the world, transform in interaction and live with purpose⁴. You would agree that at that level the individual does not satisfy basic needs but higher needs which are also biological; such as the need for love, friendship, dignity, self-respect, self-fulfillment.

Maslow clearly expressed this in one of his public presentations when he is quoted as saying “What are the moments which give you…the greatest satisfaction?… What are the moments of reward which make your work and life worthwhile?” His answer to those questions was in terms of ultimate verities “…truth, goodness, beauty..”⁵ Self-actualizing individuals, according to Maslow, devote themselves to callings or vocations “beyond themselves”⁶ and are authentic and genuine. They like to reward & praise others and feel that everyone should have a fair chance to develop to their highest potential. Can you imagine the implications for personal and organizational leadership when a leader has reached that level of motivation?

How would leading from a level of “selfless-actualization” impact leadership practice?



1. Maslow, A.H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. NY:Viking Press

2. e.g. Jung, G. (1933). Syneídesis, conscientia, Bewußtsein (Syneídesis, conscientia, consciousness). Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie, 89, 525-540; Weil, S.(2002). Gravity & Grace. London: Rutledg

3. Bühler, C. (1960). Basic Tendencies of Human Life–Theoretical and Clinical Considerations. In Sinn Und Sein. Ein Philosophisches Symposium (pp. 475-494). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

4. Frankl, V.E. (1966). Self-Transcendence as Human Phenomenon. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 6(2), 97-106.

5. Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of general psychology, 10(4), 302.

6. Maslow, A.H. (1967). A theory of metamotivation: The biological rooting of the value-life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7(2). 93-127. 7 Greene, L., & Burke, G. (2007). Beyond self-actualization. Journal of health and human services administration, 116-128.



I would love to read your thoughts!

Eleftheria EgelComment