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Actualized Leadership: The Price You Pay

Every human life contains a potential. If that potential was not fulfilled then that life was wasted.
Carl Jung

You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.
Abraham Maslow

So if you want it, got to bleed for it baby.
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” Van Halen

“Nothing in life is free.”

“You can’t have it both ways.”

I grew up hearing these words of wisdom from my parents on an almost daily basis.  When I recently commented to a friend that Maslow estimated that somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population “actualize” their potential his response to me was along the lines of “Well, if self-actualization is so great, why don’t more people do it?” That’s a fair question, and one that I have been thinking about lately. The purpose of this blog is to examine the inherent challenges and costs associated with the self-actualization process and to remind ourselves that nothing in life, not even connecting to our purpose and potential, is free.

First, let’s define self-actualization. To be precise, Maslow used the term “self-actualizing” to denote that the process is ongoing and never complete. Maslow said things such as “… what a man can be, he must be” and “stepping forward into growth” to describe the self-actualizing process. For our purposes, self-actualization refers to living a life at our highest potential that is connected to our unique purpose. For most, the benefits of living our lives in this manner are self-evident, which begs the question: why don’t more of us actively engage in this process?

I think one reason that the percentage of people who self-actualize is low is because it requires us to take risks and total responsibility for our lives. As my mentor and friend Dr. Dominic J. Monetta says, “You are totally responsible for yourself. Period.” Many of us would rather play it safe, or live out someone else’s expectations of what is “good” or “expected,” than to strike out on our own. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s seminal work “Escape from Freedom” discusses the dynamic tension between Freedom and Blame, and concluded that many of us would rather play it safe and retain the right to point fingers and blame someone else for our shortcomings, rather than take total responsibility for our lives and our happiness.

In addition to our attempts to avoid personal responsibility, I believe there are three other important reasons many of us avoid fully engaging in the process of self-actualizing. Although all of these reasons may apply to any one of us, they are often specific to the 3 Leadership Styles and Shadows: Achiever, Affirmer and Asserter. For Achievers, the Fear of Failure Shadow can inhibit self-actualization by focusing on perfection instead of the process. Perfection exists as a neat, step-by-step model with a perfect ribbon at the end. However, individual self-actualization is just that – individual. No one else has ever quite taken your path, and no one else will again, so there is no roadmap to follow. The ambiguity that is often involved in the trial-and-error process of finding your potential, passion and purpose can be especially uncomfortable for Achievers.

For Affirmers, the Fear of Rejection Shadow can and often does hinder the self-actualization process because of the inherent tendency to seek approval from others. Sadly, many Affirmers make decisions and take actions based on what they assume others need. Moreover, they often live their lives in accord with the expectations of others as opposed to their own wants and needs. Too often they garner the approval of others, but fail to live up to their own potential.

And for Asserters, living a life at the highest potential requires asking for help and for forgiveness, which is difficult with the Fear of Betrayal Shadow. Too often, Asserters realize that the walls of confidence and decisiveness that they’ve built up to prevent feeling vulnerable have turned into their prisons, holding them back from deep and authentic connection with others. To loosely quote C.S. Lewis, you can wrap up your heart and prevent it from being broken, but in that process it will become unbreakable. In other words, in order to have your heart filled you must be willing to risk having it broken. Many Asserters simply are not willing to take that risk.

Perhaps the most important reason for not actualizing our potential is the severed and broken relationships that you will experience when you decide to follow your own path. So many of our friends and family members like us right where we are. Breaking away from this “orbit” and expectation will likely inconvenience many of them. Making a decision to change your vocation, to return to school, or to focus on your own happiness is often met with disapproval, resentment and even hostility. Sadly, these relationships may end through no fault of your own. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.

To be clear, there is a price associated with actualizing your highest potential. It’s not easy and at times it can be lonely and painful. However, not fulfilling your potential or connecting with your purpose is painful and lonely too. Regret and resentment are slow burns that often begin to really “hurt” only when you realize that it’s too late.

What price are you willing to pay to connect with your purpose and actualize your potential?

If it all ended today, what would you regret?

What will you commit to right now to jumpstart your journey for achieving your potential and bypassing regret?

Actualized Leadership: Regret … what have you left undone?

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.
“My Way,” Frank Sinatra

Fear is temporary; regret is forever.

In the Christian tradition, we ask for forgiveness “… for what we have done, and for what we have left undone” in the Confessional Prayer.  That’s a provoking request.  Whether you are religious or not, it’s a powerful notion that we have accountability both for our sinful deeds, and for the righteous things that we failed to do.  The purpose of this post is to examine the impact of regrets on our lives, and how to move beyond guilt and remorse and into our highest potential.

For the last 30 years one of the most popular treatments of the importance of living a life on purpose, and with few regrets, comes from Stephen Covey’s classic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  His second habit, “Begin with the end in mind,” examines the impact of having a long-term, “win-win” mindset.  When we focus on our longer term desired outcome, the “end,” our approach can change dramatically.  Too often, we allow ourselves to get swept up in the moment, wanting to always be “right” and winning at any cost.  I’ve seen too many leaders fight to the death to win every battle, only to end up losing the war.

Research on Regret

Research into this topic is not very uplifting.  Psychologists, social workers, and medical doctors consistently find that as we advance in age, most of us have serious regrets.  They also find that the older we get, the heavier and more troublesome these regrets become.  Typically our regrets are not related to risks we took and failed.  In other words, we usually don’t look back and regret being the first to say “I love you” only to be rebuffed, or taking a risky promotion that required relocating our families.  As disappointing as it might be to fail, or to feel rejected, we don’t regret taking the risk because of the exhilaration and learning that is waiting for us outside of our comfort zones.  What we do regret, however, is not having the courage to take the risk to move to another city, or to be vulnerable in a relationship.  In other words, our regrets are most often related to the dreams we didn’t follow, what we left undone.  And while this topic may seem depressing there is good news for us. The wisdom from the voices of those who have departed found in the research on regret can teach us how to live a better life today.

The most common regret is not pursuing your dreams and aspirations.  So many of us take the easy, safe, or expected road instead of the path that is calling to us.  We put our lives “on hold” to make enough money or to feel more secure, only to realize too late that 20 years or more have passed us by.  The reality is most folks look back and regret not following their dreams.  So, Lesson #1, follow your bliss and do what makes you happy.

The second most common regret is spending too much time at work, and too little time with family.  Often this is very well-intentioned, as extra time at work can result in additional perks and opportunities for our family.  I suppose the question you should ask is this: is tomorrow’s perk worth you missing out on today’s victories and challenges with your family?  So, Lesson #2, spend more time with those you love.

Finally, research demonstrates that many of us will look back and wish we would have let ourselves be happier.  For me personally, this really hits home.  I would say that I am reasonably happy, but always looking for the next challenge or opportunity.  I believe that growth and development are important, but when they come at the cost of always feeling unsettled and thinking “what’s next?” I’m reminded that the question I should be asking myself is “what’s the point?”  Happiness really is a choice, and many of us are trapped in the notion that more “stuff” will provide it.  It doesn’t.  So, Lesson #3, choose to be happy with a grateful heart with whatever you have, wherever you are.

The Obituary Exercise

A powerful self-actualizing exercise is to write and read your obituary to a loved one or group of friends.  Known as “The Obituary Exercise,” it really brings home the point of beginning with the end, the ultimate end, in mind.  Having facilitated this process countless times, I can tell you that very few people want to be defined by their accomplishments or success.  Most of us want to be remembered as loving partners and parents, loyal friends, and responsible citizens.  Unfortunately, the math doesn’t add up.  We often put an inordinate amount of our time and energy into accomplishments and success, often at the expense of our families and communities.

Realistically no one is perfect, and therefore we are all likely to have some regrets in our lives.  But I believe if we live with “the end in mind,” we would be more likely to follow our dreams, work less, love more, and allow in our lives only others who lift us up and make us happy.

If you wrote your obituary today, what would it say?  What have you left undone?  Are your regrets too few to mention or too numerous to count, and too painful to acknowledge?

Actualized Leadership: Passion

Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Follow your passion and success will follow you.

Most organizations have Mission Statements and spend a significant amount of time, and money, on strategic planning sessions to create their Vision.  But if the above statements are true, and I think that they are, it seems to me that organizations should consider adopting “Passion Statements” that convey the why of what they do.  The purpose of this blog is to examine the concept of passion and the role it plays, or should play, in our lives.

Passion is defined as “a strong and barely controllable emotion.”  It is interesting to note that passion can mean very different things: joy, excitement, anger, rage, and lust.  We use phrases like “a crime of passion” to describe a violent and tragic act usually brought on by jealousy on the one hand, and then a “passionate love affair” to denote an exciting romantic relationship on the other.

When it comes to leadership and self-actualization, I think of passion as the fire and energy that fuel our behavior.  Passion is why we get up early, why we work late, and why we keep persisting in the face of disappointments and setbacks.

Passionate Leadership

From a leadership perspective, passion produces a number of things, including energy, influence, and persistence.  First, leaders who are passionate are driven forward by an additional reservoir of energy.  Rather than just going through the motions and trying to hang on until 5:00pm, they are energized to work as long as it takes to get the job done.  Second, passion is contagious and will ignite others.  Those working around you feel your energy and commitment, and are more likely to be energized as a result.  John Wesley said, “When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn.”  When you are burning and working with passion, you are more effective at influencing others.  And, passion helps sustain you during challenging times.  There are many times when the logical thing to do is to quit.  Yet, passionate leaders are more likely to persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks, ultimately living to fight, and often win, another day.

Passion and Success

In the book “If it Ain’t Broke … Break It!” authors Kriegel and Patler cite a study that examined the role of passion in success and happiness.  The study selected 1,500 people who were embarking on their careers and followed them over a 20-year period.  In the study, Group A consisted of 1,245 (or 83%) participants who chose careers that had a high potential for making a lot of money initially so that they could do what they wanted to do later in life.  The other 255 (or 17%) participants, Group B, chose their career for the exact opposite reason: they decided to follow their passion now and worry about money later.

At the end of the 20 years, 101 of the 1,500 participants had become millionaires.  And guess what—100 out of the 101 were from Group B, those who had chosen to follow their passion.  Clearly, there is something to be said for finding and following your passion.

So, in addition to organizations having Passion Statements, maybe you should too.  What are you passionate about?  Are you following your passion today?  When you are at work do others come around to watch you burn, or do you huddle together around the warmth of the clock ticking towards 5:00pm?

A very good Book says that “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.”  Maybe something similar could be said about passion.  When we live without passion we may not perish, but we certainly won’t feel alive.

Actualized Leadership: Creativity

Creativity is intelligence having fun.
Albert Einstein

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.
Abraham Maslow

When I think of creativity I think of the brilliant and often tortured geniuses who changed the world with their art, music, or technological breakthroughs.  I usually think of “them,” as opposed to me, and names like Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, and Steve Jobs come to mind.  And while it’s true that these are some of history’s most creative and influential people, it’s also true that both you and I have access to unlimited creativity when we master the art and science of creative insight.  The purpose of this blog is to examine the psychology behind creativity and to explore the Creative Process Framework as a methodology for putting ourselves in the appropriate creative mindset.

When referring to creative insight, the famous American botanist and inventor George Washington Carver stated, “I love to think of nature as having unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour, and every moment, if we will only tune in.”  I love this concept of creativity.  It is something eternally abundant that exists both inside and outside of us at the same time.  Our challenge is to create the appropriate mindset and practice for tapping into this creative abundance.

The Psychology of Creativity

There are three psychologists that I think provide the foundation for understanding creativity.  Carl Jung believed that our psyches contained both a personal unconscious – the Shadow – and the Collective Unconscious.  Jung believed that the Collective Unconscious contained the memories or historical DNA of our family, race, and culture, in addition to universal Archetypes. Creative insight exists within these unconscious domains, which we are intimately connected to during our lives, though most of us fail to access it.  He believed that both creativity and spiritual growth could be attained through interaction and dialogue with the Collective Unconscious.

Abraham Maslow illustrated how creativity was a common output of Self-Actualization.  Maslow stated that individuals who have transcended the need for personal recognition and connection to others become motivated by the “growth need” of Self-Actualization (as opposed to the “deficiency needs” such as recognition, acceptance from others, control over others, etc.).  In turn, these individuals are more objective, more passionate, and more problem- (as opposed to person-) centered, allowing them to tap into their latent creativity.

Modern psychologist and godfather of the term “flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, built on both Jung’s and Maslow’s frameworks to explore creativity from a more practical perspective.  He discusses common attributes such as the need to have intense focus on, and passion for, the task at hand, as well as finding your creative “rhythm” (e.g., early morning, late evening, etc.).  Like Jung and Maslow, he states that the key to creativity is to stop thinking of yourself in dichotomous or “either/or” terms (e.g., I am either a hard worker or I am lazy, etc.) and to take the time to resolve these seemingly opposites to become a fully integrated human being.  When it comes to creative individuals, Csikszentmihalyi found the following common dichotomies that had been successfully integrated:


                                                Disciplined         and        Playful

                                                Proud                    and        Humble

                                                Passionate          and        Objective

                                                Realistic               and        Fantastical

                                                Energetic             and        Quiet

The Creative Process Framework

After reviewing research on creativity, I have tried to boil down the creative insight experience into five critical steps, what I refer to as the Creative Process Framework, which follows:

  1. Purpose
  2. Mindset
  3. Disconnect
  4. Practice
  5. Promote

First, you have to have a sense of Purpose to focus your attention on.  It can be lofty, like ending world hunger, or more mundane, like writing a blog.  Whatever it is, you must genuinely care about the task at hand and feel compelled to take action.  Second, it’s critical to adopt a “growth” Mindset, as opposed to one that is “fixed.”  Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” is the seminal work to read if you are struggling with only seeing the glass as half-empty, or are too focused on what you can’t do (as opposed to leveraging the gifts and talents you do have).  I also use the term Mindset to refer to the proper balance that comes from integrating seemingly “opposite” aspects of our nature, and making peace with our own quirkiness.  Third, it’s absolutely essential to Disconnect from others so that you can explore creativity.  Research has shown that individuals who unplug their electronics and disconnect from social media are more creative than those who don’t.  And, if you want to boost your creativity, spend this new time away from your Facebook or Twitter accounts in nature.  In this instance (disconnected from social media and smart phones and plugged into nature), research has demonstrated that individuals increase their creativity by as much as 50% after only a few days!  Fourth, you must develop the discipline to Practice.  So, whether you want to create a new app, write a novel, or learn to play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar, you must be disciplined in your Practice.  And finally, after you’ve created your “masterpiece,” you must practice what “Creativity on Demand” author Michael Gelb calls “creative heroism” and Promote your work with others.  It requires courage because there is always the possibility that your efforts will be ignored, or worse, rejected.

So, if George Washington Carver and Carl Jung are correct, there is abundant creativity all around us.  We simply must adopt the proper mindset and be disciplined in our practice to access it.  If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend the books “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Intention” by Csikszentmihalyi and “Creativity on Demand” by Gelb, as well as the website http://brianjohnson.me, as excellent resources to support your process.

And whether you’re writing a book or blog, or learning to play Mozart or Metallica, I hope you will have the courage to share it with the rest of us … the world is waiting.