Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Journey of Self-Actualization: A Leadership Process of Discovery, Development, and Delivery

It is established in organizational behavior that self-actualization is the ultimate goal of every employee, almost! Self-actualization is the fact of using one’s skills and abilities and achieving as much as one can possibly achieve. The concept of self-actualization is applicable for every individual of the society. The concept is especially relevant for students aspiring to choose their careers and to entrants in organizations seeking to develop their careers. The unfortunate part, however, is that most individuals would not be exposed to the concept of self-actualization, let alone enabled to explore it. As the concept is defined, there are two operative parts; one is that of skills and abilities, and the other is that of goals and achievements. Despite the simplicity and clarity of the concept it is distressing that it is known so little, and worse still is practiced so little.

The primary reason is that the life of an individual from school to college, and from the starting organization to the ending organization is seen in parts. As a student the objective is no larger than selecting a helpful course, as a graduate the goal is no daunting than entering a remunerative job, and as a working professional the aspiration is no loftier than reaching the top of a function, business or company. None of these, however, leads one in a structured way to self-actualization. On the other hand, individuals tend to be ignorant of what they intrinsically seek to become, even towards the terminal phase of their long careers. The reason is that individuals tend to benchmark themselves with others than engage themselves in a process of self-discovery. It is important that one has a paradigm from the start of an academic journey to eventually self-actualize oneself.

Five components

The journey of self-actualization is a five component mantra. It starts with the discovery of one’s skills and abilities as the fundamental building block. This is followed by converting the intrinsic capabilities into tangible competencies, in the process also acquiring synergistic capabilities. The third component is setting one’s aspirations in a lens that is consistent with one’s value systems and inner aspirations. The fourth component is leveraging one’s competencies to achieve one’s aspirations. This, in certain select cases of transformative leaders, involves converting individual self-actualization into an organizational, social, national or global endeavor. India’s freedom movement led by the Father of the Nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a striking example of individual self-actualization helping a nation to actualize itself. The fifth level of self-actualization is an iterative one, assessing the level of self-actualization periodically, and going through the journey from a new phase of self-discovery each cycle. This could occur every few years, typically.

The fundamental starting point of self-actualization is self-discovery. The fundamental enabler of converting the intrinsic capabilities into tangible competencies is application. The fundamental motivator for aspirations is a larger purpose of life. The fundamental vehicle for bridging aspirations into achievements is performance while the fundamental driver for transforming individual self-actualization journey into broader social transformation is authentic leadership. The fundamental driver for going through the iterative process is openness to understand the self in the context of contemporary and futuristic developments. Each of the components requires a high degree of clarity on the part of the individual. Self-actualization as a journey is neither easy nor one of mere followership. It is a journey of innovation and courage, a journey in which an individual grows with his or her broader residential unit, be it a class room, a corporation, a society or a nation or even the globe. Some of the greatest achievers actualized themselves in their laboratories or corporations but could simultaneously transform social and industrial living.


Without doubt the fundamental building block of self-actualization is an awareness of one’s intrinsic capabilities. Each human being tends to be blessed with certain capabilities genetically. This is true of even the ones with challenges. These capabilities get accentuated or attenuated based on education, experience and familial circumstances. However, the internal blinkers one has, often caused by family, educational or career circumstances, inhibit one from understanding the full set of one’s capabilities. The driver of a car may consider himself fit only for driving a vehicle all through his life but if he is engaged in the process of self-discovery may understand that his finely honed skills of motor coordination actually could position him better for avocations requiring such skills, including music. A professional leader who charms his huge teams with his oration and charisma could well be capable of leading social and political movements. An academic who is passionate on strategy and entrepreneurship could one day become an industrialist himself.

The paradox of being in one domain and having skills of another domain runs through one’s life from educational to experiential states. The more visible of such trends is one of engineers moving to business management. The more subtle of such trends is one of pharmacists engineering pharmaceutical plants and chemical engineers becoming chemists, for example. A process of open self-discovery is one of introspective understanding whereby one’s skills, abilities and aptitudes are appraised to help one discover one’s path of self-actualization. Many times, friends, peers and mentors play a helpful role in one’s discovery process. Many times organizational inequities, professional alienation and social scorn, when tackled with a positive mindset could lead to self-discovery. The treatment meted out to M K Gandhi in South Africa without doubt challenged him to discover his capabilities but also re-charter his life journey. The process of self-discovery constitutes many times an inflexion point in one’s life. It would launch one onto a journey of self-actualization, which would otherwise fail to be even recognized as possible.

Competency building

It is not just sufficient for one to discover one’s abilities, skills and aptitudes. It is important to have the confidence and diligence to convert them into tangible competencies. The process of conversion is influenced by contextual setting as well as personal commitment. Contextual setting refers to the openness of the family, academic or professional ecosystem that enables one to consolidate one’s skills into competencies. When the author of this blog was spotted as a writer of management columns in business papers decades ago the managing director of the organization gave several opportunities to leverage his writing skills that reinforced the skill as a core competence. Personal commitment refers to the commitment of the individual to developing and deploying one’s skills into, and as, competencies that the world recognizes. This is not a task that is easy by any reckoning if one is in a domain while his skills flow from another domain. Consider for example a person undergoing engineering education but has capabilities in as varied disciplines such as psychology and biology. It requires personal commitment to identify domains through which one could leverage the intrinsic capabilities; in this case he may try to become human resources professional in an engineering company or become a bio-medical engineer by post-graduate specialization.

Conversion of intrinsic skills into tangible competencies would need to be supported by a process of acquiring adjacent or adjuvant skills too. For example, a professional knowledge worker in a corporation with a passion for social service would need to acquire communication skills to be able to actualize himself or herself. An engineer in the shop floor with a flair for industrial design would need to have the skills of understanding the marketplace to develop a canvas of actualization. The process of self-discovery would need to identify the bridging skills between the intrinsic skills, convertible skills and synergistic skills to develop a complete set of competencies. This requires a dedicated effort to learn the missing skills. Focused expansion of knowledge rather than random acquisition of degrees and certificates would be required. In one’s competency building exercise, the previous step of self-discovery supplemented by benchmarking helps one become a well-rounded personality of requisite competencies.

Aspiration setting

The third component of self-actualization journey pertains to aspiration setting. The aspiration can be set in a purely material sense (say, becoming the president or chief executive of a corporation), in a collaborative sense (say, developing the organization to a leading state), or in a highly emotional sense (say, becoming the change and transformation agent for the mankind). The aspirations could be also ranging between achieving something solely for oneself, for the family, or for the society. Between the extremes and around the middle exist many ways of looking for appropriate expression of aspirations. Let us imagine a professional leader who has all the attributes of becoming a chief executive but dislikes the materialism that surrounds the aspiration. Assuming he is in infrastructure industry, he could instead view his chief executive position as an instrument t o build the nation with high quality infrastructure and not necessarily as a chief executive position to aggrandize himself.

Similarly, a highly accomplished doctor or surgeon may look at building a hospital not merely as a means to build business but also as a means to serving the family and the community that brought him up. He may see himself as a savior of more lives and greater provider of healthcare than he would individually be able to. In other words, in every material aspiration of rising to the pinnacle of an organization there would also be a higher emotional aspiration of serving a larger community. Per contra, a sublime emotional aspiration would also need a material power and organizational vehicle to provide the harness the power. Competent professionals who baulk at the thought of material visibility as leaders would do well to appreciate that even the greatest of philosophers and religious leaders needed organizations and visibility to propagate their thoughts. All material aspirations have undertones of social service when the power is exercised wisely, and all social aspirations need material backbone to be able to serve the society effectively. A self-effacing approach is not an option in the face of existence of competencies to serve.

Authentic leadership

Given the competencies and aspirations, what remains as the last lap of the self-actualization journey is delivery. The bridge between competencies and aspirations is leadership. At the start of the academic career or professional career, the leadership is a combination of the grassroots leadership of the individual and that of his or her leader. As one moves up the leadership hierarchy, individual leadership becomes more important and domineering while that of his leader becomes less domineering. And once one reaches the position of chief executive he would have none other than the board to mentor. One has to display leadership that is borne out of conviction about competencies and aspirations. The word “authentic” which means real, genuine, true and accurate has great relevance to the actualization journey. The more authentic one is the more leadership capabilities one gets imbued with. “Walking the talk” and “leading from the front” are two of the popular leadership adages that reflect the authenticity dimension in leadership journey. Competencies, aspirations and conviction form a successful triage of authentic leadership.

An authentic leader is largely self-made. History teaches us that most top leaders of the world responded to circumstances and in several cases drew upon their inner sinews to fight adverse circumstances and shape positive circumstances. From Srinivasa Ramanujam, the greatest mathematician that India has produced to Mohandas Gandhi, India’s apostle of non-violence, authentic leadership was demonstrated through continuous performance leadership as opposed to armchair strategizing. Such leaders demonstrate that regardless of the domain, authentic leadership helps individuals actualize themselves, and in the process also help domain teams, societies and nations. Transformation of individuals into professional leaders and change agents occurs through authentic leadership. Dr Pratap Reddy, the physician who returned from USA to practice in Chennai, set up India’s first corporate hospital, Apollo Hospitals, and later went on to transform Apollo Hospitals into a national healthcare and brand, actualizing himself in the process as a leading healthcare icon of India.

Iterative journey

Self-actualization is an iterative journey, with constant rediscovery, continuous buildup of new competencies, setting of new aspirations and reinforced leadership. Each iterative cycle takes the journey of actualization to the next higher level. The inability to actualize in one go is natural and not to be disparaged about. Like corporations have horizons of growth, individuals too have their phases of development. From a single hospital in Chennai to a national hospital chain and a pharmacy chain, the journey of Apollo Hospitals chain is a reflection of the rediscovery of the actualization process by Dr Pratap Reddy, the founder. When MG Ramachandran, NT Rama Rao and J Jayalalithaa moved out of their peak acting careers to enter the political arena and achieve resounding successes such bold moves signified the processes of self-actualization into newer territories and onto higher trajectories. Creative fields are, in fact, well known for affording ample opportunities for enhanced levels of self-actualization. As a corollary if individuals pursue paths of creativity, opportunities would abound for actualization.

The ultimate result of self-actualization goes beyond an individual achieving his or her full potential. Given that actualization is enabled by authentic leadership, individuals achieving self-actualization serve as change agents and role models. An authentic leader inspires trust as he tends to be a performing leader leveraging his competencies. He is also seen as a guardian of values. Actualization and leadership do not necessarily mean that as the cliché goes one must always lay a new path. There cannot, for example, simply be as many different ways of studying science, engineering or management as there are students. Similarly, there cannot but be only a few ways of designing, manufacturing and marketing products. What distinguishes one individual from the other in studies is studious absorption and creative application. What distinguishes one corporation from the other in execution is efficiency and effectiveness. From individual leadership in the initial years to corporate or organizational leadership towards the senior years, self-actualization tends to be a highly thoughtful, competency-based, aspiration pursuing journey of authentic leadership.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 28, 2012

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