Can Elected Officials Get Mojo from Maslow?

Like many before me and many to come, I came to Silicon Valley for the Chips — specifically, Chip Heath, co-author of Made to Stick and Switch, and one of my heroes Chip Conley, owner of Joie de Vivre hotels (who I actually admitted to having a brain crush on via Twitter). Both Chips were keynotes at the 2010 National Arts Marketing Project Conference held in San Jose this weekend.

The first time I listened to Chip Conley (who tweeters at the conference have immortalized with the hash tag hotchip) and as I read Peak, I thought a lot about how Arts Alliance Illinois, primarily an arts advocacy organization, could “refresh the identity” of Illinois arts practitioners and leaders through advocacy.

But this time, maybe because I’m still thinking about Election Day, I was thinking about a Hierarchy of Needs for elected officials. Specifically, what is transformation for elected officials. If you were an elected official, what would it mean to be all you can be?

Before you begin the snarky comments, let me take a step back – for all of you wondering what the Hierarchy of Needs is, how this is connected to Chip Conley, and what it means to refresh an identity.

You may have heard the term “Hierarchy of Needs” in a psychology class or on your Lincoln-Douglas debate team if you’re a dork like me. Abraham Maslow, a professor of psychology, invented the term when he decided to shift the gaze of psychologists from the “worst case scenarios” in humanity to those living the happiest and most satisfying lives. He discovered a hierarchy of needs – from basic survival to transformation – that defines human existence. Here’s my rendition:

My Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Photo credit: Flickr user Khalid Almasoud.

The bottom layer is all about physiological needs: food, drink, air, and sleep. Next up are your safety needs. Then there are needs related to love and belonging, followed by esteem needs. On top of the pyramid is self-actualizing, being all you can be.

Chip Conley discovered the Hierarchy of Needs in the early 2000s after the dot-com bubble burst (all of his hotels are in the San Francisco Bay Area) and 9/11. He was worried about making payroll in 2 weeks and went to the book store seeking a Deus Ex Machina in the business section. He found one, but only once he found himself in the self help section reading Maslow.

To keep things simple, Chip Conley boils Maslow’s 5 layers into 3 themes: survival, success, and transformation. (You can learn more about Chip’s take on Maslow in his book Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.)

As a hotelier, Chip Conley strives to actualize all layers of the pyramid for his customers. The survival needs of his guests (or their basic expectations) are a comfortable and clean bed as well as a quiet and safe room. Their success needs (or their desires) include responsive staff service and feeling like a VIP.

Their transformation needs (or their unrecognized needs) are about “refreshing identity.” What does that mean? According to Chip Conley, it means his hotels should be mirrors for the aspirations of the customers. The same words they would use to describe themselves on a good day should be the same words they use to describe the hotel and their experience there.

What would a Hierarchy of Needs look like for elected officials? What does survival, success, and transformation mean for an elected official?

I think survival is as simple as re-election. In a world without term limits, most elected officials are at a basic level looking to continue to serve their constituents.

Probably success is the respect of peers and being seen as a leader on issues they care about and champion.

But what is transformation for elected officials? Being an idealist, I would hope it’s something like making a difference (passing the first, significant reform of healthcare at the national level) or accomplishing the seemingly impossible (putting a man on the moon). The pessimists in the room might think transformation for elected officials is less about being all you can be and more about having as much power as possible or living as high on the hog as possible.

I do advocacy for a living, but even I get frustrated that politics seems so much about survival. (Part of this is the design of the system: members of Congress, for instance, have to run for re-election every 2 years). I sometimes feel there is little room for success, let alone transformative experiences.

What do you think? What does it mean for an elected official to be all they can be? Is there room for transformation in politics? Can the arts contribute to the self-actualization of elected officials?