I have recently been researching leadership theories, and how they are applicable to various positions within business organizations. I was first introduced to this concept in my Leadership and Human Resources Development graduate class, and have since been very intrigued with how these ideas are connected to the work we do within our institutions. Obviously, there are several different leadership theories that can be discussed, including Lewin's (1930) Behaviour Theory, Allport's (1921) work on Trait Theory, Fieldler's (1958) Contingency Theory, and Transformational Theories, such as Kouze and Posner's (1987) Leadership Participation Inventory, just to name a few. However, I have found it difficult to find literature that focuses on or includes the concept of leadership as a personal process of development and growth. Instead, it seems that most theories emphasize inherent traits, situational experiences, mutually beneficial relationships, or privileged/differentiated positions. While I don't disagree that relationship building is an important part of leadership, nor do I believe that being in a differentiated position doesn't come with more expectations of leadership, I do not personally believe that leadership is grounded solely in either of these ideas. In my personal opinion, being a great leader is constantly pushing yourself to be better, and recognizing achievement as going above and beyond what is required of you. Most importantly, my view of leadership is not inspired by rewards, promotions, or monetary value; rather, it is grounded in motivation and drive. Those are leadership qualities that I think are earned through hard work and dedication, and are not necessarily in every person that we would call a "leader".
Earlier this week, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet that Ryerson John* had posted about leadership. Leadership actually has little to do w/ others or positions within an organization. It's about self-actualization. Ding, ding, ding - finally! After reading it, I instantly felt a sense of reassurance and contentment. I also thought about Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1954), and wondered how I hadn't thought of it sooner. If you are familiar with Mazlow's theory, you know that each person is motivated to achieve certain needs, and as each is attained, they move to the next. As one must satisfy lower needs before moving to the fifth stage, self-actualization, it can be incredibly difficult for a person to attain. However, once an individual has achieved self-actualization, they realize their potential and seek personal growth and meaningful achievements.
What I found so inspirational about the tweet was that the focus of leadership in this context is on our own individual ability as a leader to move through the previous four stages - psychological and biological; safety; love and belongingness; and esteem - and to focus on personal discovery. I found this particularly interesting, because many organizations do consider leadership to be about team and peer relationship development. While that is incredibly important, particularly in the field of student affairs, building relationships does that not always inspire the motivation to continuously improve and to be the best you can be. I would say the same about an individual's position within their organization. Regardless if you are managing a department, or working on the ground level with students, that should not be the only characteristic that dictates who you are as a leader. So how are we creating cultures within our institutions, departments and organizations that focus on supporting staff in moving through the hierarchy to become a leader - an individual who reaches self-actualization?
Accordingly to Mazlow, there are 12 characteristics of a self-actualized person. These qualities are described in a recent article in the Huffington Post:
1. They embrace the unknown.
2. They possess high levels of self-acceptance, including their flaws.
3. They prioritize and focus on the journey, not the destination.
4. They are inherently unconventional.
5. They are motivated by growth instead of satisfaction of needs.
6. They have a purpose.
7. They are not troubled by small things.
8. They are grateful and do not take blessings for granted.
9. They share deep relationships with a few people, but have affection toward the entire human race.
10. They are humble.
11. They resist enculturation and make their own decisions, selecting what they see as good and rejecting what they see as bad.
12. They are not perfect.
So again, I ask, how are we incorporating these concepts into our one-on-ones, performance evaluations, and coaching conversations? How can we use these 12 characteristics to focus on concepts that we have previously used to define leadership - relationship building, leadership traits, competencies, and positional differentiation? Let's talk about developing trusting relationships by creating a culture where every employee knows that their peers are working to reach self-actualization. Let's create departments that connect competencies to working through the hierarchy. Let's hire staff who have goals related to becoming self-actualized. And most importantly, a question I ask myself everyday, what are YOU doing to reach self-actualization? Because while we all contribute to our organization in some manner, there are always decisions that are made above us that we may or may not have any control over. However, the one thing that we all have consistent control over is ourselves, so I challenge you to critically think and reflect on Ryerson John's tweet, and ask yourself: how are you going to work on reaching self-actualization?
*If you are not familiar with Dr. John Austin, I would encourage you to follow him on Twitter and read the #RyersonSA Blog. The work that the Ryerson Student Affairs department is doing is both inspiring and exciting!
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.