Are You Considered a Selfless Leader? Perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

Jun 8, 2022

As part of our work together, I recently asked a client to tell me what he loved about himself. One of the items on his list was being “selfless” and he wasn’t the first of my over-stressed high achievers to include this sentiment. It makes sense. Many of us are brought up to believe that being selfless is positive, somehow angelic. We commend sacrifice. It is the behaviour of enlightened beings. Similarly, selfishness is bad, and can be hugely destructive, isolating, and fractious. However, it is misleading to assume that either is inherently negative or positive or that if you are not one, you are inherently the other. Further, outside of extreme circumstances like perhaps saving a life or facilitating big world social and political change, self-sacrifice and personal disregard can be just as great a disservice to ourselves and others as selfishness is perceived to be.

  1. Selflessness can disempower. If I do it, you don’t have to. If I always do it, it becomes “my job” and you are never expected to do it. If you are never expected to do it, you never do it and so, I feel overwhelmed and unsupported. Further, you never learn to do it and this becomes part of your self-identity, “I can’t do…because.” “My boss always did the….” “My partner always took care of the…” “My parents always did…for us”.

If we are constantly selfless in our doing, taking care of, organising etc we are inadvertently training others into helplessness. In turn, this helps us to feel in control and safe. However, give a staff member a fish and he eats for a day, trust him to fish and he’s partners in achieving your objectives …

  1. Selflessness can breed resentment. It is a very wily way our psyche uses to stay connected with others. Fundamentally, the subconscious operates on something like – If I do things for you, you will like and appreciate me and I will feel secure. If I prioritise myself, or say “no”, you will be unhappy and I will feel rejected and unlikable.

However, when I do things for you and don’t receive the response I expected or feel unappreciated, I am in sacrifice. This inevitably breeds a low buzz of resentment. Because it feels “selfish” to be resentful, this resentment (which is essentially our body’s way of informing us that our boundaries are being crossed) presents in other ways like self-recrimination, repetitive illness, or even that propensity to be easily frustrated and snappy with people around us.

  1. Selflessness can limit potential. Before Roger Bannister, it was deemed physiologically impossible to run a mile in under four minutes, a feat that had been attempted for over a century. However, 46 days after his achievement, Roger’s own record was broken – and since then, thousands of runners have beat the four minute mile with relative ease. When Mark Spitz swam in the 70s, his times were world record breakers, and now you wouldn’t even make the team if you didn’t swim as fast.

The same is true outside of sports. Naturally, we tend not to “believe it until we see it”. But we can only see it when others express it. Progress is made by standing on the shoulders of giants and, you are somebody’s giant. If you are consistently focused on the needs of others over our own, you suppress your own light and inadvertently dim the lights of others around us.

Selflessness can be a commendable trait that is good and right and even necessary at times. However, it is also often driven by fear and insecurity. Therefore, it is important to recognise the difference between being generous and sacrificial. In this regard, understand why you do what you do, who you are impacting, and communicate openly about your choices with the intention of serving the highest good for all, including yourselves.

Lead with what I call, “conscious egotism” (ie honouring our own needs with awareness and consideration). This allows you to pursue your goals and uplift others from a fulfilled cup. In this state, you are aware of your drivers and intentions while perpetually honouring yourself and others equally. Further, as you value your own worth, you guide others to do the same, providing a model for your staff etc. to follow in our footsteps toward their own “4 minute mile”.

In its own way “conscious egotism” is the backbone of healthy selflessness and prime leadership. Primarily, by respecting our own needs and boundaries, we are better able to recognise and support the needs of others. We are not leading from fear but from vision. Arguably, there is nothing more commendable than that.