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Coaching for Self-Actualization

Posted by William L. Sparks, Ph.D. | September 1, 2022 | Comments (6)

Coaching is a helping profession, but our world is changing. As our collective consciousness rises to new levels, shifting expectations are dramatically impacting the field of executive coaching. Once focused primarily on professional goal attainment, executive coaching is now facilitating the introspective journey of finding purpose, meaning and our highest potential at work.

In fact, ICF defines coaching in part as “… partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Famous names associated with human potential such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Carl Jung, once relegated to psychology textbooks, are making a resurgence in the business world as the practical application of their theories gains increasing relevance in today’s professional climate.

The Paradox of Self-Actualization

My research has been focused on human development and leadership for more than 25 years. If there is any universal maxim that seems to apply to helping clients reach or actualize their full potential, it is this:

In order to reach your brightest light and highest potential, you must accept your darkness.

As such, the total self-awareness “equation” — knowing our strengths and our limitations — is essential to realizing our highest potential.

The Actualized Leadership Framework

The Actualized Leadership framework is my attempt to organize and synthesize seminal thinkers and theories in human development and motivation into a simple and practical approach for helping others through providing greater self-awareness. There are three styles that emerge from this approach, and three corresponding “Leadership Shadows” that must be recognized and integrated in order for the individual to realize their fullest potential.


Achievers are those driven primarily out of a strong need for achievement and recognition. They are organized, detail-oriented and driven for success. Many Achievers excel as accountants, technology professionals and salespeople.

However, when the Fear of Failure Leadership Shadow is activated, the strengths identified above become inherent limitations. Under stress, an Achiever will transform in unproductive ways: organized becomes rigid, detail-oriented devolves into being obsessive, and expertise leads to micromanagement. The existential and ironic tragedy is that when this happens Achievers actually increase the likelihood that they will artificially limit their success and career trajectory, if not experience outright failure.


Affirmers are relationship-driven individuals with a strong need for affiliation and connection. In many ways, they represent the social glue that connects and holds us together in our organizations. Affirmers are warm, friendly, loyal individuals who care deeply for others, and they are excellent team members who take on many roles, often in human resources, training and development, and coaching.

While all of these and many other positive characteristics are ever-present with Affirmers, there is a dark side that emerges when their Fear of Rejection Leadership Shadow is activated. When this occurs, friendliness becomes conflict avoidance, concern for others leads to being overly accommodating, and trying to manage different opinions and perspectives creates indecisiveness. And just like the existential and ironic tragedy associated with Achievers and failure, Affirmers are more likely to experience the rejection they so fear if they allow their Leadership Shadow to manage them.


Asserters are the confident and candid individuals who are driven primarily out of a need for control and power. Many times, they are the engineers who build our skyscrapers and the military leaders who fight our wars. Strategic thinkers and decisive decision makers, Asserters are often found in the C-suites as COOs, CFOs and CEOs.

However, there is a dark side to this confidence and candor: the arrogance and bluntness that reside in their corresponding Fear of Betrayal Leadership Shadow. When activated, the resulting desire to be “right” and the condescending tone that ensues often lead to the separation that, to the Asserter, feels like betrayal.

Coaching for Full Potential

As coaches, we have a unique opportunity to help our clients acknowledge and accept their darkness and, in doing so, start the journey toward integration that leads to self-actualization. Carl Jung famously said that we do not become enlightened by “imagining figures of light.” Rather, we realize our highest potential when we have the courage to “make the darkness conscious.” When we facilitate this awareness in our clients, we see firsthand the power of the paradox inherent in the self-actualizing process.

William L. Sparks, Ph.D. headshot

William L. Sparks, Ph.D.

William L. Sparks, Ph.D., is the author of Actualized Leadership: Meeting Your Shadow & Maximizing Your Potential (SHRM Publishing, 2019) and serves as the Dennis Thompson Distinguished Chair  and Professor of Leadership at the McColl School of Business at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, USA. He may be reached at Complete a free leadership assessment at

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Comments (6)

  1. William I think you are spot on. When we accept our strengths and our limitations and the actuality of situations we become effective and productive. I am still learning this at almost 80 years old.

  2. Suren Kapse says:

    Hi William,
    I liked that you started the article with acknowledging that the our collective consciousness is rising. I am curious to know if you would define self-actualization differently today that Maslow’s defined?

  3. Thank You For sharing information very useful article

  4. Dezin says:

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  5. Zohaib Butt says:

    Good Articles, When we accept ourselves then the coaching journey starts. I’m going to share the best coaching toolkit and documentation ever found.

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