Leaders and Self-Actualisation

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What is Self-Actualisation?

The term ‘Self-Actualisation’ was originally introduced by the theorist Kurt Goldstein (1934) as the only real motive, a driving force,  a person has to realise all of their potentialities.  Which is very similar to Carl Jung’s (1923) concept of Self-Realisation. Essentially, it is the positive energy that consistently flows out of ‘this is not good enough/ this could be better’!

In 1941, the concept of self-actualisation was brought to greater prominence in by Abraham Maslow as the highest level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic needs are fulfilled.  Maslow defines self-actualisation as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

Later in 1956, Maslow moved beyond the ‘be all that you can be’ and went on to describe self-actualisation as a new way of thinking and being.  Carl Rogers joined the debate in 1961. Aligned with Maslow, Rogers described the actualising tendency as ‘an inner biological need to grow and develop both physically and psychologically’, ‘a process of always becoming and changing, rather than a final state i.e. for Rogers, Self-Actualisation is a process of being’.  Rogers used the idea of locus of control to explain the difference between being free to respond to your own inner actualising tendency (internal) or being restricted by the views and beliefs of others (external).

Characteristics of Self-Actualisers


  • Are not judgemental and are accepting of themselves and others. They are not ashamed of their shortcomings, and frailties nor are they self-satisfied and smug. Their principal satisfactions from their own development and continued growth.  They are humble in their recognition of what they know in comparison with what they don’t and are ready and willing to learn from anyone.
  • Have a connection with what is real with unusual ability to detect what is fake and/or dishonest. They are not afraid of the unknown and can tolerate the doubt, uncertainty, and tentativeness accompanying the perception of the new and unfamiliar.
  • Are spontaneous. They are not hampered by convention neither are they non-conformist for the sake of it.
  • Are autonomous. The motivation of the self-actualiser is internal, not external or even goal-directed.  What matters is their growth and development, the actualisation of themselves and their potentialities.
  • Can seem detached, related to a sense of security and self-sufficiency.  They value solitude ad are comfortable being alone yet they tend to have deep interpersonal relations with others. They often attract others to them as admirers or disciples.
  • Live in the present with a continued freshness of appreciation, deriving pleasure and wonder in their everyday world.
  • Are creative with a fresh, naive, direct way of looking at things.
  • Are usually highly ethical. They clearly distinguish between means and ends and subordinate means to the ends.
  • Are determined, mission-oriented focussing on problems outside of themselves, often on the basis of a sense of responsibility, duty, or obligation rather than personal choice.
  • Have a deep feeling of empathy and compassion for others irrespective of any frailties or negative qualities.
  • Have a non-hostile, non-sarcastic sense of humour and an ability to laugh at themselves.
  • Accept what’s thrown at them and keep moving forward.
  • Are driven towards learning and growth.

To varying degrees and with varying frequencies, self-actualising people can have what Maslow termed ‘peak experiences’, moments of intense joy, wonder, awe and ecstasy that can seem religious or mystical and can be life-changing.

One criticism of Maslow’s concepts is that that they are culturally biased, a product of Western culture with a bias towards individualism compared with other cultures such as the Eastern value of the collective.  From our experience and research at Viventé, basic human motivations are consistent across cultures; and that people in Anglo and far Eastern cultures similarly prefer working with highly self-actualising leadership and in organisations where those behaviours are expected.

So what relevance does self-actualisation have for leaders?

Firstly to answer that, we need to consider what effective leaders do.

While thousands of books and articles have been written on leadership, at Viventé we have distilled our own answer to that question, which has been validated by our clients.  Our view of the responsibilities of leaders is the shaping of a sustainable future, rallying, exciting and inspiring others people to want to take action to higher levels of performance, with purpose.

How?  By defining and engaging others in purpose, mission and values driving quantum change, sharing power, facilitating outcomes, creating value, calculating risk, pioneering the way, holding true to course even when the going gets tough, teaching and learning, thinking critically- asking new questions and creating fresh insights, relating to and collaborating with others and teaching others to think for themselves (with confidence).

Yet it is as much about who they are and how they need to be. Being confident yet humble, resilient, ethical, authentic, a role model, accountable, open to new ideas and learning, courageous with self-awareness and renewal.

Secondly to answer the question, it’s useful to remember that for leaders to lead requires followers.  In their very interesting research at the London Business School published in Why Would Anyone be Led by You?   Goffee and Jones (2006) identified that what followers want from their leaders is authenticity.  And many of the characteristics of authenticity described by Goffee and Jones are those of self-actualisation.  For example:

  • having a sense of their uniqueness,
  • selflessness – never asking their followers to do what they would not do themselves
  • recognising they are not perfect and revealing their weaknesses selectively (and not those central to the task)
  • living a vision and set of values
  • being themselves, transmitting who they are.

J Clayton Laffterty, a pioneer in the psychology of achievement and human effectiveness developed the Circumplex-based Life Styles Inventory™ to measure individual thinking and behavioural styles.  Lafferty showed that Self-Actualising, at the top of his LSI Circumplex, is the style most strongly correlated with personal and interpersonal effectiveness; and combined with drive towards realistic goal-achievement and interest in a support for others is recipe for leadership success; in fact without that combination, leaders will fail.

Viventé nominations for those we believe exemplify Self-Actualisation

 Mahatma Ghandi                           

 ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world’

 “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Mary Vallentine AO (CEO, Melbourne Recital Centre and former MD, Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  For generosity and contribution well-beyond what’s expected.

Professor Henry Brodaty AO (Director, Dementia Collaborative Research Centre)
For generosity, motivation to learn and for unswerving dedication to improving the quality of life for dementia sufferers and their families.

Tim Costello (Chief Executive of World Vision Australia)
For his determined and unswerving passion for and leadership on social justice issues, ethics, spearheading public debates on gambling, urban poverty, homelessness, reconciliation and substance abuse.

If Self-Actualisers are hungry to learn and grow to realise all of their potentialities, how do you develop your Self-Actualising?  Another blog for another day! And certainly where Viventé executive coaches can assist you.  In the meantime, what are you doing to develop yourself to be more self-actualising than you already are???


Lafferty, J. Clayton and Cooke, Robert A. (1981). Level 1:Life Styles Inventory – An Instrument for Assessing and Changing the Self-Concept of Organizational Members. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Goffee, Rob, Jones, Gareth (2006): Why Should Anyone Be Led By You. Boston: HBS press

Rice, Keith E, web site of leading UK SocioPsychologist  http://www.integratedsociopsychology.net/self-actualisation.html

Runco, Mark, Peter Ebersole & Wayne Mraz (1995): ‘Creativity and Self-Actualisation’ in Journal of Social Behaviour & Personality #6 in http://www.integratedsociopsychology.net/self-actualisation.html

Sheffield, Michael, James Carey, William Patenaude & Michael Lambert (1995): ‘An Exploration of the Relationship between Interpersonal Problems and Psychological Health’ in Psychological Reports #76 in http://www.integratedsociopsychology.net/self-actualisation.html

Vivente is an executive leadership and management company based in Sydney, Australia.
To learn more, please telephone +61-2-8211-2771 or visit us at Level 33, Australia Square – 264 George Street; Sydney, NSW 2000 AUSTRALIA