Selfish vs. Selfless – The Choice is Yours

March 7, 2022

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 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 you are being paid to do on a daily basis” of leadership. The “how you do it” of leadership includes being selfless. Let me define selfless versus selfish and why this is critical to becoming an effective leader.

The Distinction Between Self and Others

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 being exceptional and to be promoted. We all want to make more money, attain a higher status at work, and become leaders if that is the path we want to take. This is a happy and positive selfish.

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 to me early on in my career and after getting my first shot at leadership. This leader told me that I now had to think of my team first, and me second. The care and feeding of my troops came first. Their career development, their aspirations, their problems were all now a priority. 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 It Matters

Why is this concept so important to becoming a truly effective leader? At a minimum, it forges a humble 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 honestly 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 concept of leadership – their people! Nothing gets done without the people. Your people. No strategies get executed, no results occur, 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.

Myriad organizational studies and HR professionals tell 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 serve 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. It’s no different when you are a selfless leader.

Being selfless indicates you are there for the team when they have problems. You mentor, you counsel, you advise. You are available 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 my column. 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 morally correct being selfless is.

Ironically enough, there are certainly correlations in your action towards your team that will reflect positively upon your own career progression in the organization. Your healthy selfishness is being fed and watered by your effectiveness at being selfless. It is a win-win.

It takes time for a leader to grow acumen with regard to the concept of selflessness. It is harder than putting yourself first as a leader. But I have found the rewards of being selfless pay tremendous dividends. I recommend this road. You’ll be amazed at what you and your team can accomplish. Go forth and do great things, selfless leaders!

About the author: Mike Howard currently is President of Howard Consulting Services, LLC, a security consulting and mentoring firm based out of Las Vegas Nevada. Howard is the former Chief Security Officer (CSO) for Microsoft Corporation and held global responsibility for vital security functions including operations, investigations, risk mitigation, crisis management, executive protection, security technology, strategy, intelligence, and employee awareness. Mike was the CSO of Microsoft for 16 years. Mike speaks regularly as a subject matter expert on security and leadership while using his extensive security background to help drive industry innovation.

He spent 22 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, finishing as a Chief of Station. Mike also worked in the CIA’s Office of Security and served on the security staff of the Director of Central Intelligence. He worked in the Counterterrorism Center, ran global programs, and served in assignments around the world. Mike’s first book, “The Art or Ronin Leadership,” is available now.