Realizing More of Your Potential — Deeper Success — Through Moral Leadership
Thinking about Human Potential
Jacqueline Novogratz and Acumen Show Us How
Pursuing your full potential seems like a worthy goal, but also feels unrealistic and frustrating. Perhaps, the best aspiration is to realize more of our potential by finding the most gratifying pathways toward our best possible futures.
Thinking about Human Potential
The subject of human potential might remind you of the iconic pyramid of human motives inspired by the great mid-twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow. Recently, I described an upgraded motive pyramid using relevant research to expand on Maslow’s theorizing.
Maslow never used a geometric form to illustrate his motive hierarchy; later authors introduced the famous pyramid. I continued that tradition with an updated pyramid showing multiple routes to personal growth and how each of us can do our own pathfinding.
Shortly thereafter, I was pleased to find a new leadership book, one of the best I’ve read, to assign to my leadership classes. Sadly, this turned out to be a senior moment: I am semi-retired and have no students to whom to assign the book. But I can tell you that it is inspiring and wise, especially for times as worrisome as these, and it beautifully illuminates the principles and possibilities of the new pyramid.
The book is Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World. The author, Jacqueline Novogratz, is the founder and CEO of Acumen and wrote the previous best-seller, The Blue Sweater. Forbes named her one of the world’s 100 greatest living business minds, and Foreign Policy included her their list of the top 100 Global Thinkers.
The manifesto’s theme is moral leadership, to the benefit of everyone everywhere, as indicated by its subtitle. Moreover, Novogratz herself offers us a superb model of outstanding leadership.
If you’re not sure if now is the right time to cultivate your fuller potential, consider Novogratz: “[W]e have infinitely more knowledge, connection, tools, skills, and resources to tackle the world’s [challenges] than we did . . . at any other time in history [pp. 4–5].” Her philosophy seems to be: If not me, who? And if not now, when?
The Essential Motives
We will return to Novogratz and moral leadership in a moment. First, here are the motives in the new pyramid:
- Security as the Foundation, Flourishing at the Peak
Most people’s first desire is to be secure. Security motives include water, food, and safety. Attempting to achieve such goals causes us to avoid physical harm and seek comfortable living conditions, health care, and insurance.
These days, your security motives are operating when you wear a mask and avoid big or rowdy crowds. People will strive for security with ever greater fervor as the earth continues to warm and our climates change.
At the peak of Maslow’s original hierarchy, self-actualization was the crowning glory. This motive is widely understood to mean realizing one’s full potential. Maslow described self-actualizing people as developing their unique styles, pursuing their private purposes, and expressing themselves through music, art, poetry, athletics, or inventing.
Maslow also mentioned a less individualistic “ego transcendence” involving the pursuit of love and intimate relationships. Later, he described “metamotivations,” including helping others and pursuing callings beyond oneself. This set a stage for contemporary scholars to study human flourishing as a broader, ultimate form of striving and thriving.
The peak of the updated pyramid therefore highlights human flourishing: a state of complete well-being, including physical and mental health, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, positive social relationships, autonomy and mastery, personal growth, and virtue.
These indicators of complete well-being are ends in themselves, sometimes means to other ends, and nearly universal as human desires.
As you read on, I urge you to take the pyramid personally as well as intellectually and consider how you can best apply it.
2. Growth as Self-development and Self-transcendence
Self-development emphasizes applying and strengthening one’s knowledge, talents, and capacities. The term captures the primary path to self-actualization as Maslow described it and includes personal and professional growth and accomplishment.
Self-transcendence differs from self-development by serving motives that benefit other people and causes. Maslow wrote that human potentialities could be individual or collective and even species-wide. The updated hierarchy therefore includes self-transcendence as a high-level motive manifested in choices and behaviors that help others.
Novogratz urges readers to abandon the old model of doing what is best for oneself while incorrectly assuming that other people will turn out fine. Consider self-transcendence as a lifelong pursuit of a beloved comic, highlighted in this tribute after his recent passing: “Carl Reiner Was Funny. But His Greatest Gift Was Letting Others Shine.’
- Agency and Communion as Duel Engines
The pyramid’s next level down contains the dual motives of communion and agency — the “Big Two” of social cognition. Communion, related to Maslow’s social needs, means integrating the self into a larger social context, whereas agency is the desire to individuate oneself from others, control one’s environment, and achieve one’s goals.
Personal agency, not a prominent feature of Maslow’s theorizing, plays a significant role in the new motive hierarchy.
Agency is about choosing your own goals and actions; it provides control and self-direction as you pursue the motives and paths you prefer. Alternatively, when we don’t think and act agentically, we typically behave today likely we did yesterday, passively and predictably, controlled largely by circumstances and other people.
Under Novogratz’s leadership, Acumen’s worldwide mission is to strengthen people’s agency, especially for women lacking opportunity. Novogratz dreamed of a world in which women could gain greater control over their lives and has worked energetically to accomplish that goal.
Pathways to Flourishing
“No matter who you are,” Novogratz writes, “the world offers you a thousand opportunities for deeper success [p. 39].” Supplementing my previous recommendations, here are some routes to deep success:
1. Finding and providing security
The pathways to flourishing open when lower-level needs are satisfied in the moment and over time. The foundation of security, and therefore a requirement for sustained flourishing, is access to resources — physical and psychological, financial, medical, social, and natural/geographical — sufficient to pursue one’s higher-level motives.
Novogratz and her colleagues at Acumen strive to bring people out of poverty. This mission provides security to others and opens routes by which poor people can flourish through communion, agency, and growth. In doing such work — by bringing security and empowerment to others — Acumen associates thrive as well.
Spotting a human problem and addressing it is a pathway to flourishing. But what about the world’s seemingly intractable “wicked problems,” a phrase many activists dislike because it seems so scary and discouraging? Progress over time — not necessarily complete solutions — is what matters.
2. Strengthening personal agency, in belief and action
Agency is the escalator to self-chosen, higher-level goals and actions. It propels communion, self-development, and self-transcendence, which, in combination, generate the broadest and most meaningful flourishing.
Jacqueline Novogratz began her efforts to help women in the 1990s, when she felt agency by noticing a problem and believing she could help make people’s lives better. Belief, though, wasn’t enough. Jacqueline also exercised her agency — she initiated action, introduced herself to new people, and engaged deeply with interested peers.
A belief in oneself is intangible, but proactive behavior actually makes things happen. Proactive behaviors are future-focused, purposeful actions that change current trajectories and — when managing risks and performing effectively along the way — create desired outcomes.
Early struggles helped Jacqueline and colleagues learn “to deal with ugly truths while singing songs of the possible [p. 10].” Learning how to achieve results brought stronger agency beliefs and led to even more effective action.
Rwanda, where Novogratz started, now has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians of any nation.
3. Pursuing communion via self-transcendence — doing right for others
Communion — close social relationships, for instance, friendship or love — is a worthy end in its own right, but can also help others and you flourish.
Ms. Novogratz writes about communion and self-transcendence eloquently and often. She tells us that “a revolution of morals requires each of us to redefine success, asking ourselves whether we are doing enough to serve others, whether we are enabling others to help themselves, whether we are kind [p. 249].”
She also highlights a vital form of long-term, intergenerational communion: “[W]e stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and others will stand on our shoulders [p. 5].” She urges us to shift our way of thinking from selfishness to sustainability.
Some motives probably engage you more than others. You might pursue agency more than communion, or self-development more than self-transcendence, or vice versa. (Men show more agentic tendencies and women more communion, but the distributions overlap, so gender differences are not the sole cause.)
Whatever your tendencies, consider stretching yourself by consciously adding others to your repertoire. If communion appeals more than personal agency, don’t focus so much on other people’s needs that you neglect your own. If agency dominates, consider taking on projects that are meaningful beyond yourself. Novogratz urges us to elevate both individual and collective dignity and to serve others while benefiting ourselves.
By deciding to stretch, try new things, and seek new knowledge, you grow and flourish in domains you once thought were beyond your competence.
5. Leading, in the best ways possible
We (the world) must solve a severe supply/demand imbalance: too many local and global needs and not enough effective leaders. The world has a surplus of serious problems — make that “opportunities” — that are unsolved, ignored, or made worse by inaction or ill-advised actions.
Engaging and leading others in collaborative pursuits can bring about the greatest and most profound changes.
Those who undertake bridge-building collaborations — cross-functional, multidisciplinary, multi-sector, and multinational — can define success by how much their efforts benefit diverse others.
Investors and business stakeholders comprise one category of “others,” but so do people beyond one’s inner circle, or people suffering injustices, or nonhuman species facing environmental degradation and extinction.
The world is full of leadership positions filled by people performing inadequately. Effective leadership is not about exerting authority or displaying a charismatic personality but rather about spotting problems and tackling them collaboratively, creating opportunities, and leading constructive change.
These are the activities of real leaders, not to mention the best paths to human flourishing.
As Novogratz states, “Whoever you are and whatever you do, the world needs you to lead [p. 250].”
The people of Acumen clearly feel a responsibility to contribute to large-scale, sustainable change. Perhaps feeling responsible for something is the first step toward a more robust personal agency. The words of George Bernard Shaw pertain: “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
Once more, in closing, Jacqueline Novogratz: “We make ourselves out of the promises that lie ahead. And we are always in the process of becoming [p. 5].” Abraham Maslow, speaking hypothetically from the grave: “I could not agree more.”
An earlier version of this piece appeared at PsychologyToday.com