November 7th, 2012

First posted on Huffington Post 11.6.12

Self-actualization? Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid with “being all you can be” at the top (co-opted by the U.S. Army as a marketing slogan) was a wake-up call for Americans in the 1950s when personal behavior and goals were so influenced by predominant societal ways. Abe’s humanistic psychology theory was made for the 60s with the advent of hippie culture and the idea that we should all “follow our bliss.”

Unfortunately, Maslow died young in 1970 at age 62 and the “Me Decade” turned “self-actualization” into “self-absorption.” His legacy got lost in the academic psychology world and, for some, the Hierarchy of Needs represented more of a Tyranny of Wants. I was fortunate to be gifted with Maslow’s journals written in the last ten years of his life. In his writing, it’s very clear that Abe’s desire was to see how his iconic theory could apply to the collective, not just the individual, as he pondered, “Can an organization or a society actualize?” And this is partially why, later in his life, he introduced a seven- and an eight-level pyramid with “self-transcendence” at the top.

It’s been more than five years since I wrote PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow where I outlined how my boutique hotel company reinterpreted Maslow’s theory to transform our organization at the bottom of a deep economic downturn. I’ve had the good fortune of introducing my theories in PEAK to diverse groups on five continents. And, as I spend more time with younger leaders – and more time in Asia – it’s clear to me that it’s time to change the language at the peak of this pyramid.

I see just how important Maslow’s theory was in reaction to the stifling social rules of mid-20th century America. And I deeply believe that all of us aspire on some level when we’re trying to be all we can be in our lives. But, the times and the calculus of how the world works have changed.

I propose we start imagining “social-actualization” at the top of the pyramid. We’re moving from an era when “rugged individualism” was foundational to how we defined success to an era when collaboration is essential for both personal and societal success. Some of my transition may be due to spending so much time in Asia with its historical predilection toward collective rather than individual success. But, it’s even more influenced by what I learn from talking to young people all over the world. And the fact that in many business schools the most popular classes today are on how to become a social entrepreneur focused on solving the world’s collective problems.

So, what qualities distinguish someone who is social-actualizing as opposed to self-actualizing? Abe Maslow suggested that a “peaker” (someone self-actualizing) had a tendency to get lost in the love of what they were doing. This losing oneself can also be prevalent in a social-actualizer, but what’s different is that this person’s purpose is focused on a collective good rather than just a personal good (although a longer discussion with the Ayn Rand-ers might suggest these are the same). So a “social peaker” focuses on systemic effects and social gains in their actualization. Additionally, as more research shows the social and emotional contagion that connects us, a social-actualizer also imagines the ripple effect they may have on others. For example, a self-actualizer might pursue their passion – whether it’s being a triathlete or learning how to give great speeches – with the primary focus being on how it makes them feel. A social-actualizer might choose to enter a triathlon that supports a cause or use their speech-giving to make a difference.

We may feel the glow from someone who’s in the midst of self-actualizing and that can move us to greatness as well. But, when we’re in the orbit of a social-actualizer, we feel drawn to a higher calling and one that can create a sort of “collective effervescence” of a group. A self-actualizer rower can win individual speed records, but a crew, when they’re in the midst of social-actualization, can experience what is called “swing” in rowing circles. It’s that miraculous moment in physics when a group is so connected and in unison of a common purpose that the boat literally elevates in the water – diminishing friction and increasing speed. Here’s to the 21st century being one swinging era in the history of mankind.


June 25th, 2012

Recently, I had the good fortune of attending a daylong conference in Ecuador with 300 South American businesspeople all focused on “Transcendar Par Ganar,“ transcending to win. I gave a speech at the start and at the end of the day, but my primary role was to listen to how numerous companies had used my 2007 book PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow to create a transformational business strategy. Late in the day, I was asked, “If you were to rewrite PEAK today, what would be some of the fundamental changes you’d make to the book?” Here are my thoughts on that opportunity to rewrite history, or at least the book.

First, unlike medicine and law, we don’t think of our profession as business leaders as a “practice.” And, unlike sports, the arts, or religion, we don’t even “practice” our craft…we just do it. And, quite often, we do it rather unconsciously. Business principles are only as good as the practices that back them up. PEAK spoke to the organizational construct, but not to the individual practices that a PEAK leader should emulate to get the biggest bang-for-the-buck from humanistic psychology principles.

After interviewing dozens of leaders who operate effectively with the PEAK principles, I developed a list of 7 Practices that I saw consistently exhibited (and wrote about it in this recent blog: While each practice can stand alone, when combining them together a PEAK leader unlocks the human potential that is stored in every organization or team so that PEAK performance is more likely.  They are more than foundational beliefs, they represent a new way of doing business.

If you’ve read PEAK, you know there are three pyramids of three levels each: one for each of the primary stakeholders in most businesses: employees, customers, and investors. My other three revelations each center on a separate pyramid. With respect to the employee pyramid – which has a progression from Money at the base to Recognition in the middle to Meaning at the peak – my aha moment came when I spoke to 400 investment bankers the same week I spoke to 300 arts administrators. Both groups were initially resistant to the framework of this pyramid with the investment bankers saying their pyramid is Money, Money, Money and the arts folks saying their pyramid is inverted (standing upside down) and unstable with Meaning being predominant at a pointy base.


What’s now clear after speaking about PEAK in depth on four continents is that virtually everyone agrees with the employee hierarchy of needs pyramid as long as the underlying two lines that separate the three levels have malleability. For salespeople or those who can seem to be mercenary, the line for the Money may take up 80% of the lower part of the pyramid. But, those organizations that truly differentiate themselves in money-driven environments still use Recognition, and even Meaning, as an employer differentiator. If they didn’t create a culture that did so, their competitors could offer a 5% better pay package to their top performers and they’d have a brain drain. Frankly, the 80% Money based of the pyramid also defines the employment relationship in most developing countries as money is such a necessity for living. For many non-profits, quite often the Money layer of the pyramid may only be 25% and Recognition might be the next 15% with Meaning representing 60% of the rest (a very large PEAK-shaped hat), but people still do recognize the hierarchy of priorities inherent in the pyramid.

With respect to the customer pyramid, my B-to-C bias (as a hotelier) shows in the fact I call it a customer rather than a client pyramid. If I were to do a revision of PEAK today, it would be focused on how to address client needs in a B-to-B world. The majority of my speeches are to companies that sell to other businesses with many of these companies being based in Silicon Valley. The good news is that they recognize the logic in this pyramid and the magic that can occur when you address the “unrecognized needs” at the peak.

PEAK leaders are mind readers, but they need to imagine the unspoken needs of not just their client, but also of their key decision-maker. This is the big difference of how this pyramid works for B-to-B versus B-to-C. You need to use this pyramid twice: first to understand what you expect your clients’ expectations, desires, and unrecognized needs to be, and, then, do it again for the person whose butt is on the line by making this decision. That key decision-maker has a hierarchy of needs as well that needs to be satisfied. The more risk averse they are, the more likely they’ll focus on the survival base of just looking to have their expectations satisfied. But, if you’ve got a decision-maker who has an appetite for a game-changer for their organization, then you need to help them see and get excited about the transformational nature of this decision they’re about to make and present your choice in that light.

Finally, while, initially, reinterpreting Maslow’s human needs pyramid for investors felt like a stretch when I wrote the book, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many entrepreneurs use this pyramid to size-up their potential investors when raising money. In fact, that’s what I did when I considered four different finalists when selling a majority interest in my company. I tried to size them up to understand whether they were purely transactionally-focused such that the investment was really just an exercise in Excel spreadsheet mastery or whether they were like Warren Buffett, focused on developing a long-term return and investment strategy based upon relationship alignment. And, then there were glimmers of hope that a couple of the groups we were talking to might be legacy investors, focused as much on the non-financial, industry-changing opportunity of investing in a successful boutique hotel company as they were focused in the short-term ROI.

In sum, I’ve learned since our sale that few investors stay on just one level of the pyramid. Investors – like all of us – can change their priorities or change their perspective – moving up or down the pyramid at will. There may be some opportunities that create great pride of ownership for the investors and then other opportunities when it’s all about, “How much did we earn today?” When I first wrote PEAK, I’m not sure I truly understood just how important it is, not to just size up your investors when you start the relationship, but to continually check in to determine, at any given moment or with any prospective new investment, just which level of the pyramid best describes the investors’ motivations.




June 25th, 2012

(Published on Huffington Post April 17th, 2012)


Why don’t we “practice” business? I’ve come to realize that – unlike medicine and law – we don’t think of our profession as business leaders as a “practice.” A few years ago, in the last downturn, I developed the principles of PEAK as an alternative operating model for my business based upon Abraham Maslow’s iconic Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. Reinterpreting this well-known theory of human motivation helped me to see that all stakeholders associated with a company have their own Hierarchy of Needs. My company Joie de Vivre tripled in size during this difficult period and I came to find out that a variety of other transformational companies like Harley-Davidson have used Maslow’s theory as a foundation for their business model.

Business principles are only as good as the practices that back them up. Recently, with the assistance of some good friends, I’ve developed a set of PEAK Leadership practices that can assist any leader or leadership team to move from survival to success and on to being a transformative role model in their industry. When a company embeds these principles and practices in how they grow their leaders, the end result is PEAK performance: a phenomenon of sustained growth – both for the organization as well as for those within the organization.


Practice 1 Embody an inherently positive view of human nature.

The principles of PEAK have their roots in humanistic psychology and a basic belief that man is meant to “be all that he can be.” So, it’s not surprising that the fundamental first practice is assuring that a PEAK leader believes that humans – at their very core – gravitate to goodness when the right conditions exist for them to flourish.

Creating what Maslow called “psycho-hygiene” in a company means focusing on people’s best qualities and believing in what’s been known for a half-century in business as a “Theory Y” perspective on management versus “Theory X.” With Theory X, management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can. As a result of this, management believes that workers need to be closely supervised and a comprehensive system of controls developed. With Theory Y, management assumes employees may be ambitious and self-motivated. They believe the satisfaction of doing a good job is a strong motivation and seek to create the conditions for the employee to develop their own strengths to be successful. While this latter theory may feel intuitively right to many of us, is your organization still structured in a Theory X style of business?


Practice 2 Create the conditions for people to live their callings.

Great leaders understand there are only three relationships you can have with your work: a job, a career, or a calling. A job tends to deplete you and a calling energizes you. Most employees live in the bartering world of work. The company gives them a compensation package and recognition and, in return, the employee gives their time and energy. Yet, those that are living their calling have moved from external to internal motivation. And, these employees are not exclusively focused on the specific collection of tasks they perform and are more focused on the impact or purpose of what they do. The best hospitals have more nurses living their calling. The best airlines have the happiest flight attendants (Southwest). What are you doing to help your people find their sense of calling in what they do?


Practice 3 Promote and measure the value of intangibles.

In business, we are taught that leadership is all about managing what you can measure, but what’s most easily measurable is the tangible in life. Yet, is it the tangible or the intangible in business and life that creates value? In business, the metrics that track the tangible are well known: your profitability, assets & liabilities, cost structure, market share. Yet, in reality, these tangible metrics are the result of a series of intangibles that drive excellence: brand loyalty and reputation, employee engagement, customer evangelism, the ability to innovate. Great leaders nurture, value, and evolve corporate culture – one of the most valuable intangibles –  as a key differentiator for their company. These intangibles are the inputs that drive the tangible output that most companies use to evaluate their performance. In the 21st century, great leaders are learning how to measure and benchmark these intangibles so that they’re not out of sight, out of mind. Which intangibles are most valuable to your business and how are you measuring them?


Practice 4 Ability to move fluidly between being a “transactional” and a “transformational leader.”

Author James McGregor Burns once wrote that, “Transformational leaders look for the personal motives in followers, seek to satisfy higher needs, and engage the full person of the follower.” Yet, most management decisions require only transactional thinking because the goal is purely to optimize existing resources. A great leader is able to move fluidly between addressing the foundational needs that people have, but also helping them see beyond the short-term so that they can be motivated by a compelling vision that helps them transcend their momentary challenges. How much of your time is stuck in the trenches as a transactional leader versus focusing on how to create transformation?


Practice 5 Calibrate the balance between “Conscious” and “Capitalism.”

Business has quite often been seen as a “zero-sum” game. One person’s win is another person’s loss. Taken to the global level, some believe that capitalism’s short-term gains are often to the long-term detriment of the environment and to certain communities. And, at this crossroads, in an increasingly transparent world, this is why great leaders have to think more broadly about the impact of their decisions, not just on the bottom line, but on their broader stakeholders. In many ways, Wal-Mart took this step when they saw their stock price flat line even with sizable revenue and net income growth. Yet, for those socially conscious business leaders, cash flow is the blood that keeps your organization alive. Make sure the basic survival needs of your company are met. How do you balance the priorities of the broader community versus the financial needs of your company?


Practice 6 Focus on your customers’ highest needs.

Henry Ford once suggested, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” PEAK leaders and companies understand what the customer wants even before the customer has articulated it and they realize that customer innovation requires a certain amount of mind reading and cultural anthropology. By doing this well (with Apple being the best example in the world), you create a movement and evangelists and reduce your need to spend money on traditional marketing. Are your customer satisfaction surveys just asking the obvious questions that will track their expectations and desires, but not their unrecognized needs? How can you “mind read” your customers?


Practice 7 Lead to PEAK

Just as a Sherpa does in the Himalayas, great leaders meet their people where they are on the pyramid and help them to see the natural path to the peak. They recognize the value of loyalty and mentoring as a means of sustainable success in business. PEAK leaders champion personal development in tandem with corporate development knowing that there’s a synergistic effect of having a self-actualized individual in the workplace as evidenced at companies like Google. And, most importantly, they embody authentic leadership by being, not just by doing.  How are you incubating a collection of great leaders?

Conscious people pay attention. It’s true of spiritual leaders. It’s true of business leaders. PEAK leaders pay attention to the higher needs while not neglecting the base needs that provide a foundation for their organization. Leadership is all about making conscious choices and knowing that the higher you are in a company, the more magnified your decisions and behavior will be throughout the organization.