I admit, I find Maslow’s triangle of appreciating needs satisfyingly secure as an American. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and professor at a private college in New York City, was an extreme individualist. He was the first scholar to clearly state that human need was more than just material; he elevated psychology into spirituality. The psycho-spirituality of Maslow’s self-actualization, beginning with basic physiological needs, then increasing to security, belonging, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization, was an answer to many prayers for a more evolved form of psychology that moved beyond the trait-like (and dogmatic) approach of behavioralism and tried to forget about the mythic and slimy fallacies Freudian psychology brought; Maslow brought humanity back into psychology.
The application of self-actualization to leadership is when a group of individuals together seek to become self-actualized together, thereby creating a space for mutual self-actualization. The leader, recognizing this basic drive for people to self-actualize, also pursues this with his followers and together they are able to move towards the penultimate point of human spirituality as a unit and a team, but ultimately is fueled by a personal desire for improvement. The commitment of mutual self-actualization within an organization is a commitment to a value than is higher than anyone one person, but has the capability to help each person “become everything that one is capable of becoming” and turn each person into change agents whose self-determination contingency (upon the group value) becomes a destiny. The keystone to the mystery of self-actualization is a concept known as effectance, which is an ability which if utilized properly, people can remain undeterred by the events that surround them if they have learned how to train themselves to continual growth in paradox. Effectance is the most important skill to have when pursuing self-actualization and any leader should be well-acquainted with the theory and methodology of training people to strengthen their effectance.
Maslow’s ideas, as heroic and idealistic as they sound, contain one major flaw, and that flaw is actually the strength the ideas are built upon: individualistic self-determination. When he was 20 years old, Maslow married his cousin and left his parents forever. He could not stand the sight or even the thought of his mother, and he hated his father for most of his life. As a child, his father had physically abused him, and his mother had both mentally and physically abused him severely. He hated himself as a child; a victim of extreme antisemitism, he forsook people and hid in the library, abandoned the faith of his parents and became an atheist (later seeking to revisit faith by comparing his self-actualization with an actual spiritual experience), and when he finally was free of his family, became a sexuality researcher for most of his life, trying to discover why a woman in a sexual relationship with a man, felt the need to show dominance over him through manipulation or ‘castration’ while at the same time yearn for his respect. He finally deduced that human sexual behavior was almost identical to primate behavior, and through these conclusions deemed that needs were less based on the materialistic needs of the enlightenment and more based on self-propagated conception of a deeper level, because he had noticed in his monkey studies that their sexual behavior was primarily driven less by natural instinct and more by social attitudes.
Two singularly important issues arise from this discussion. Firstly, in cultures where individualistic determination is not only taboo but undesired, his theory of social attitudes desiring self-actualization falls short. Secondly, the fact that his theories were derived primarily by analyzing sexual attitudes of domination and submission falls prey to the fallacy that perhaps not everyone’s self-determination is driven solely by their sexual propensities, but perhaps by a deeper and more fulfilling role, especially for people who have allowed the Holy Spirit into their lives and given their sexual being to God instead of using it for their own desired ends. I question as a leader, how it is possible to even use Maslow’s theories in countries where self-actualization is considered poor form, and what’s more, how to implement his theories as a Christian with self-actualization taking the place of Christ.
Maslow was the first psychologist to define “humanistic psychology” which was composed of the following five claims:
1. Humans cannot be reduced to parts.
2. Humans exist in a wholly human context.
3. Humans are continually conscious of context.
4. Human choice leads to responsibility.
5. Human intentionality is rooted in meaning and value.
Essentially, Maslow says that our actions are not rooted to context, but rather are rooted to meaning. Context is important for Maslow (as people exist in context), but in the end there is a greater desire, a “transpersonal” desire to self-actualize to a more spiritual-type of existence. For a person whose context is derived from his or her desires to self-actualize, the five claims of humanistic psychology carries tremendous weight. However, for a person whose self-perception (and even self-actualization) is derived entirely from their context, humanistic psychology is a vapid and empty set of statements that has little bearing on reality.
The Ideal Man, in Chinese philosophy, is someone who has achieved ren, or humaneness. Humaneness is Confucius’s mirror-image of Maslow’s self-actualization, but in the opposite direction. Harmonious, self-sacrificing, humble to a fault, an inveterate nepotist and a wholly functioning contextualist, the humane person in Chinese philosophy disdains anyone who attempts to self-actualize and berates them for their pride, cutting the head off before wings can be grown. Today, many western ideas have filled the halls of China and transformed many into those who seek self-actualization, but usually if those people want to pursue their dreams they must leave the country. And usually they do, fondly remembering their homeland, but never forgetting that in their homeland leaders are but specters who hover behind the curtains, and workers are the cogs in a giant socialist machine, spinning into eternity so that the state, an inhumane creation, can self-actualize and find spirituality in itself.