Hacking Maslow – In search of Horizontal Leadership

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As global leadership risks becoming an oxymoron, the next generation are no longer looking up for inspiration. What was once a vertical (or diagonal) perspective has become horizontal as role-models of leadership have shifted from figures you can’t touch, to peers you can reach.

In mainstream leadership, original thought seems to have (like so many Elvises) left the building, whilst our thriving start-up, social enterprise, tech and creative economies are defined by inventiveness. A paradox evidenced in recent news “Millennials ditch grad jobs to found startups, 311k company directors under 30, up from 295k two years ago”.

“Hope is critical, a lack of it conflicts with the demands of the next generation.”

And when a left-wing outlier thought to be a relic is embraced by UK youth culture, as creatively as Grime4Corbyn, because he seems A) honest and B) to give a shit, it shows A) what the next generation value and B) how far up their own arses current leaders are lost.

As the imagination vacuum balloons at the top, a rush of idealism draws in beneath, and while business and politics could recover from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurialism (they have before) alongside an absence of optimism or empathy, the results are fatal.

Hope is critical, a lack of it conflicts with the ambitions of the next generation; “Millennials want purpose over paychecks”, “Gen Z want paths to careers and fulfilment”, say ranging op-eds from The Guardian to Forbes demonstrating the Zeitgeist’s spectrum of awareness.

If you doubt this search for meaning, is truly meaningful then look to the alternatives capturing attention as mainstream leadership eats itself; from the meteoric rise of Soul Cycle, Spin classes with motivational preachers on the mic’, through to the steep increase in young women outing themselves as modern witches, finding an alternative spiritual answer to activism in spell-casting.

The establishment’s thinly-veiled self absorption holds no appeal to the bright open-minded minds of the future who want answers, ideas, self-determination and self-actualisation.

And herein lies the clue; self-actualisation, the famous pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The locus of a thousand leadership books, essays and TEDx talks and a recently re-proven mainstay in our understanding of why we do what we do, and what we’ll do next.

Maslow charted human progress through a series of need states giving way to the next on our way through life. Like all good ideas that explain everything, it is drawn as a triangle.

Ever since, we’ve accepted that once we win at the game of life, it is time to think beyond property, prosperity and security, and begin to be motivated by ideas of morality, common good, being of consequence to the world, or, what many call “giving back”

But that’s the old paradigm, in the new paradigm this could be the first generation who don’t arrive at a point of “giving back” because they never “took” in the first place.

Therefore it’s time for Maslow’s OS update for clues to unlock the new leadership we need.

There are two essential upgrades. First I’ve included Wi-Fi and battery life to the base of the pyramid along with food, shelter and warmth, because, like, durr.

Second, I’ve tipped the top of the triangle forwards, the bit when we have our “Aha” moment and realise there’s more to life than accumulating stuff. It is my conviction that for the next generation of leaders, self-actualisation now begins at the beginning.

I’ve worked with thousands of young future leaders across countries and cultures over more than two decades. Whether they are urban or rural, middle-class or marginalised, the importance of doing something that means something absolutely now starts sooner.

The evolved state of self-actualisation has tipped so a point begins alongside, and with shared significance to other baseline needs, then inversely mirroring our tapering progress, the importance of meaning expands, until it is an equal signifier of success.

The much-quoted Deloitte Millennials Survey supports my Maslow Hack. Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte states: “Millennials are just as interested in how a business develops its people and its contribution to society as they are in its products and profits. This should be an alarm to business, in the way they engage Millennial talent or risk being left behind.”

Rather than feel pessimistic at Eton Rifles peering from the crumbling fort, I look forward to the next wave of leaders whose understanding of impact in a connected world isn’t just informed by decisions they have made, it now informs the decisions they will make.

For them, it clearly matters to do something that means something. Living and working without meaning renders you redundant. Note to self Theresa May, et al – the idea of “giving a shit” has gone from being a nice-to-have, to being a need-to-have.

This opinion by no means belongs exclusively to the young, but as highlighted in The Financial Times in October this year: “UK business leaders decry state of capitalism, admitting management greed, corporate tax-dodging and investor short-termism have left it in need of reform and modernisation.” … whilst the wokeness is welcome… no shit Sherlock, keep up.

To find the ideas we need, perhaps the leaders we have should stop looking up too, and instead look amongst the leaders of tomorrow, where they’ll find the answers they need.

I imagine some of you might think the idea that the future leaders amongst our young have more to offer than the current crop is a stretch too far. But if that is you, then I promise, it’s more an issue of your own imagination gap, than it is of their talent gap.


Sam Conniff Allende is a partner at Jericho Chambers, Chief Purpose Officer at Livity, and Chair of Generation Change. Sam’s first book Be More Pirate is out in May 2018, published by Penguin Random House. 

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