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Selfish vs Selfish – The Choice is Yours



In my book, “The Art or Ronin Leadership,” one of the themes I talk about is how leaders need to be “selfless” in their approach to leadership in dealing with their teams. Selflessness was not a word I thought about earlier in my career as a police officer in Oakland, California, or during my formative years at the CIA. But the concept of being selfless is so critical to being an effective leader that I argue one is not a true leader unless they practice being selfless.


Leaders are expected to drive the strategies for their organizations, execute those strategies, and deliver results. That is job number one for any leader. That is the “what are you being paid to do on a daily basis” of leadership. The “how you do it” of leadership includes being selfless. Let me define selfless vs selfish and why this is critical to becoming an effective leader.


When you are growing your career, you are more selfish in how you perceive your career progression. I do not mean selfish in the sense that you are only thinking of yourself in the work environment and taking advantage of your co-workers to get ahead. It does not mean exhibiting negative behaviors like undercutting people, always looking to take credit for everything, and seeking the limelight from your bosses. Selfish in the context of this article and my book refers to concentrating on your career progression, your achievements, and desiring to be promoted and experience advancement. This is natural for all of us, and it was for me too when I was still working. We all want to do well in our jobs. To be recognized for doing great work and to be promoted. We all want to make more money, attain a higher status at work and perhaps become a leader if that is the path we want to take. This is a happy and positive kind of selfishness.


But taking on the mantle of leadership means you must consciously make the switch from being selfish to selfless. A leader I truly admired at CIA first coined the term selfless me when I was young in my career and getting my first shot at leadership. This leader told me that I now had to think of my team first, and myself second. The care and feeding of my troops came first. Their career development, their aspirations, and their problems all now came first. He explained that I would always want to grow my career in a healthy way but that leadership, true leadership meant that you give up self to become selfless.


Why is this concept so important to becoming a truly effective leader? At a minimum, it keeps you humble as a leader. I’ve seen too many so-called leaders who think it is all about them. They are so enamored with being the boss that they truly think life revolves around them. They love the trappings of being the boss. The bigger office, the title on the door of Director this, Chief of that, VP of whatever. They love to give orders and see people jump when they speak. They may even be effective at getting the job done. The problem is that they forget about the most important equation in this thing called leadership – their people! Nothing gets done without the people. Your people! No strategy gets executed, no results happen, and no business goals are met without the people who do the day-to-day work in your enterprise. And what motivates your people more than anything else besides whether they enjoy the work they are doing?


You! Study upon a study by companies and HR professionals tells us that the number one reason people leave their jobs is due to their bosses. Bosses who lack empathy. Bosses who don’t care about them as people. Bosses who look upon them as cogs in the wheel and not flesh and blood. It amazes me how such a simple concept as selflessness is lost on people who are in leadership positions. Think about the people you view as friends. What are the characteristics of a good friend? They care about you as a person. They are interested in your life. When you are hurting, they hurt with you. When you have something good happen in your life, they celebrate with you. When you have problems and need to talk about those problems with someone, they listen and hopefully act as a sounding board to give you good advice. They are there for you and look at you as a human being, not as a number. They are selfless, not selfish. Certainly, they care about their families and have their own share of problems. We all do. But true friends know to be there for you as a friend through thick and thin. It’s no difference when you are a selfless leader.

Being selfless means you are there for the team when they have problems. You mentor, you counsel, you advise. You make time for your team members. You are accessible to them, and you guide them to solutions that will enhance their own career progression and get them through whatever adversity they are going through. Sometimes these are personal problems but that comes with the territory when you practice selfless leadership. You consciously put their needs first before your own.

Remember, as a leader, your organization’s strategic and business goals must take precedence over anything else as I said at the beginning of this article. But right after that comes being selfless. And guess what sports fans? Your ability to be selfless translates to motivated and enthusiastic team members. They know you care about them as people, not just as employees. They will execute your strategies with enthusiasm and your business goals will certainly be met and more times than not will exceed your expectations! And more importantly, you will lead by example and model to your teams and the next generation of leaders how effective and right being selfless is! And another funny thing happens. Your own career progression will thrive as well! Your healthy selfishness is being fed and watered by your effectiveness at being selfless. Pretty good huh?

It takes time for a leader to grow acumen in this thing called selflessness. It is harder than putting yourself first as a leader. But I have found the rewards of being selfless are worth it. Try it! You’ll be amazed at what you and your team can accomplish. Go forth and do great things, selfless leaders!

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