COVID-19, Leadership, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

One of the most well-known models in social psychology is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This simple classification of human needs, introduced by Abraham Maslow in 1943, outlines intrinsic human motivation (see diagram).
He suggested we all have these 5 needs including:
• Physiological: food, shelter, water
• Safety: health, job security, safe environments
• Social Belonging: friendship, relationships, family, acceptance
• Self-Esteem: confidence, independence, freedom
• Self-actualization: mindfulness, becoming your “best self”

Maslow basically said we need to take care of our most basic needs like safety and security (bottom of the pyramid) first and then strive for higher level themes like belonging, self-esteem, and ultimately self-actualization.

A revisit of this model may be worthwhile in this time of crisis, especially for company executives. Leaders are desperately trying to handle financial chaos, changing business models, extreme uncertainty, and the health, welfare, and survival of their employees. We know that the best leaders continually reinforce higher-level themes like teamwork and discretionary effort. With COVID-19, leaders need to go back to basics and acknowledge themes of health and safety. Discussing corporate vision and execution may feel hollow and tone-deaf during this crisis. As a company leader once shared, “If I crashed my car on the side of the road and am bleeding, the mechanic telling me I need to change my oil and replace my tires isn’t helpful.” In other words, deal directly with the immediate crisis. This includes:

- Show concern for people’s physical and emotional well-being
- Continually check in to see how they’re doing
- Actively listen to their concerns
- Share your own concerns
- Offer to help however you can
- Let them know they’re not along
- Be transparent about business realities
- Provide mental health support tools (addressed in a previous blog)

An Important Update

Maslow’s final book “Farther Reaches of Human Nature” was posthumously published in 1971. It identified a critical sixth factor, self-transcendence. The highest achievement for an individual was not self-actualization but rather transcending one’s own needs and showing care and compassion for others. This outward focused mindset is grounded in empathy and altruism.


During this crisis, taking care of ourselves is critical but so is looking out for others. Maslow suggested altruistic acts make us feel better about ourselves in addition to helping out those in need.

True self-transcendence helps us understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is instrumental in solving problems together. It may also provide perspective and comfort as we all endure this pandemic together.