Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs Meets the Pyramids of Egypt

777 1024 Ellen Ensher
  • 0

By Ellen Ensher, Ph.D.

Recently, I taught a 5-week management course in Rome for Loyola Marymount University’s study abroad program. We had 15 students travel from LMU along with myself, Paola Moscarelli, Professor of Italian, and our program director, Professor Aine O’Healy. One of the best aspects about teaching abroad in Rome is the proximity to other countries, so dipping away for a quick weekend trip to Egypt was both exotic and easy. On this trip, I started thinking a lot about what motivates people to travel, to work or do anything at all. As I stared at the pyramids in Egypt, it struck me that they looked a lot like a classic motivation theory: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs AND that a good tour guide uses Maslow’s pyramid to guide guests around the Egyptian pyramids.

I traveled to Egypt with my 15-year-old son, Mark, and my good friend, Rosie. We had all been looking forward to this trip and at the same time expected it to be an intense experience. Due to the political situation and recent terrorist activity, friends were worried and suggested we not go. However, being from the U.S. I am only partially joking when I say that I am probably in more danger of being shot just going to school than I am having anything bad happen to me when in Egypt. Of course, we took appropriate measures to be safe such as only going out with guides and staying within the confines of our hotel near the pyramids in Giza. In any case, as a cancer survivor, I am determined to be safe, but also but not live my life in fear. Traveling is my passion and I collect countries like some people collect coins (67 and counting!) and Egypt and the pyramids have been on my bucket list for a long time. So, onward we went!

Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs theory was developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 and is probably one of the more memorable (although scientifically debatable) of all of the motivation theories. It is a way of explaining what motivates people to succeed at work specifically and in life overall. Maslow’s needs theory is basically the idea that everybody has “lower order” needs and until these needs are satisfied that one cannot pay attention to or properly develop their “higher order needs.” This classic theory has a lot of staying power because it is so intuitive and universal to the human experience. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything creative or reflective while grappling with hunger, thirst, or exhaustion, understands Maslow’s approach to motivation. It struck me while traveling in Egypt that a good tour guide almost instinctually applies Maslow’s pyramid when leading guests around the Egyptian pyramids.


At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid is Physiological Needs. After all, it is really hard to enjoy the pyramids of Giza when you are thinking, “I need to use the bathroom” or “It is so hot -I need water or I might fall off my camel!” We have all been in a place where our lower level physiological needs prevented us from enjoying a life experience so a good tour guide points out the “cleanish” bathrooms, finds water, and checks in on his/her charges. By the way, I do the same thing when teaching my own students or a group of executives- I always start with pointing out where basic physiological needs can be met.

The next level up for Maslow’s pyramid is Safety needs. In fact, we did get to climb into and up the pyramid of Giza in Egypt but we were cautioned by our guide to only go so far because of well… safety. When you think about safety, it is really about both physical and psychological safety. A good tour guide knows how to attend to both of these aspects. Part of being safe while traveling abroad is not standing out and acting like a loud jerk, it is also about moving quickly and decisively. Once we arrived at the pyramids, our tour guide told us to stay close to him, talk only to him, not to engage with any vendors. When my son started to play  with a curious camel, our guide told us that if you “look you pay” and that the next time my son would need to pay for interacting at all with the camel. In the classroom, I do try to care of student’s safety needs by cautioning them about content that might be inflammatory and these days even have to have the “active shooter drill” conversation as well.

As you ascend up the Maslow’s pyramid, the next tier is about Love and Belonging. Our Egyptian tour guide made us feel a sense of belonging by assigning us Arabic names. Mark became Abdul, Rosie was Fatima, and I chose Mona (in honor of my sister-in-law). We referred to each other by our Arabic names during the hours we spent with him. It was silly but did give us a sense of belonging. Also, he asked about our own ethnic origins and told us we looked Egyptian. Love and belonging is all about establishing something in common and this is something any good tour guide, recruiter, or networker should know how to do.  In class, when meeting students the first name I try to find something I have in common with each of them, which also helps me recall their names.

Esteem Needs are about feeling a sense of accomplishment, recognition, and gaining an overall sense of self-worth from accomplishing a task or doing a good job at something. I think for Rosie and I who planned the trip together, getting us, and Mark in and out of Egypt without any real discomfort or calamity did boost our esteem needs. We complimented each other on our savvy planning (please note Rosie’s color coordinated scarf and shoes that pop in our photos!), preparation (although we could have used more cash!), and overall travel job well done. As for our tour guide, he asked us to complete a survey at the end and provide him with feedback, which probably gave him future job security and no doubt boosted his esteem needs. In class, I am all about this verbally and non-verbally when students participate and engage.

Finally, like the ancient Egyptians, we confront the top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization. This is where the hard work of being an evolved human being really happens. Being self-actualized is where we become our best selves, and this might be professionally, personally or both. How do we self-actualize on a weekend trip to Egypt? Honestly, I am not sure I know exactly, but I think it comes in those quiet moments of reflection and gratitude. For me, it might be staring out the window and talking with my son about accidents of birth where some of us “win” the birth lottery just by virtue of where we are born, or what genes we get or don’t get. Or it might be reflecting on how all of these years later how people come and go from this dimension to the next and thinking about what each of leaves behind whether a book, a child, or a structure that lasts many years. I think self-actualization can also be facilitated by a good tour guide or teacher who asks:  “What did you like?”, “What resonated?”, “How did this make you feel?” I am still thinking about this one so feel free to chime in here readers!

Sometimes a change in perspective like a trip to the ancient pyramids gets you thinking about a classic theory in a new way. So, whether you are tour guide, trainer, or professor, in the words of Kurt Lewin, “there’s nothing so practical as good theory.”

For more on our travel reflections for Summer Rome 2019 see On FB find us at:

Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D., is a Professor of Management at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, California and is an expert in mentoring. recognized Ellen in their list of 100 top leadership speakers in 2018. In 2017, Ellen was LMU’s Professor of the Year for excellence in teaching, and in 2018, she received the Eddy award for outstanding teaching. Ellen is the co-author of Power Mentoring: How Mentors and Protégés Get the Most out of Their Relationships, and has published over 50 articles and book chapters. She has consulted for many organizations, including the City of Los Angeles, Legg Mason, Sisters of the Holy Cross, and the United States Navy. Dr. Ensher has been cited frequently by leading media publications including Bloomberg, Fast Company, and Forbes. As a 2017 Fulbright awardee, Ellen taught at the University of Vaasa in Finland. In addition, Ellen is a LinkedIn Learning author of four courses on topics of mentoring and management. To view her Tedx talk on mentoring, and for more information, please visit