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  • John Reese

Leadership VI - Selfishness

The SIXTH of Napoleon Hill’s 10 Major Causes of Failure in Leadership is SELFISHNESS.


“Leaders who claim all the honor for the work of their followers are sure to be met with

resentment. Really great leaders claim none of the honours. They are content to see the

honors go to their followers because they know that most people will work harder for

commendation and recognition than they will for money alone.”





Hill uses the word ‘follower’, which doesn’t resonate with most of us in this post-modern era. We prefer terms such as ‘associate, team member, business partner’ rather than ‘follower’. Whatever progressive terminology we use, the point Hill is making is that leaders must give credit to those for whom credit is due.


Am I selfish? Are you? You had better believe that I often act out of my own self-interest and not altruistically or for the common good. My intentions are good, yet my actions at times betray them. The spirit is there, the heart well-intended, but often my actions reflect the fears and anxieties of my very human ego.


In a healthy culture, the workplace is one where you find common values, clear direction, shared successes, mutual accountability, and growth by learning from mistakes. We fail often, and as others are fond of saying, we are best to fail fast so that we can learn and keep moving forward. Failures should not be weaponized nor be used to single out individual shortcomings in front of the group. In other words, praise in public and correct in private. Humiliation of any member of the team acts not only to demoralize the entire team but works to thwart creativity, individual thinking, and healthy risk-taking.


This is not to say we stand around the water cooler holding hands and singing Kumbaya all the time. There is room for healthy discord and open, honest disagreement as long as it’s professional, objective, and fair. This means everyone involved gets an opportunity to have a say. This type of engagement, while difficult, leads us to sound decisions that all team members can buy into.


We also have to be careful not to create an environment where consistently poor performers are tolerated. If there is no improvement after privately and objectively addressing key issues, then you may be left with one course of action. Your team will be looking to you to take that action and you must follow through in order to keep standards of work high and recognize the value of those who consistently go above and beyond.


Selfishness is a very different animal from self-awareness or self-knowledge. As Hill states, selfishness is a common failure of leaders, but self-awareness is vital to a leader’s effectiveness. Without an ongoing effort toward learning and understanding of ‘self’ it is difficult for us to be present, to listen, to recognize our shortcomings, and to lead with humility. All of which is required in the modern workplace… Self-awareness, good. Self-interest, not always bad. Selfishness, a disaster in the making that will catch up with a leader, if not now, then definitely at some point.


Perhaps the most difficult part of self-awareness is that it must be accompanied by self-acceptance. Self-knowledge that leads only to self-criticism or even worse, self-hate is possibly even more detrimental than self-ignorance. The goal of doing our ‘inner work’ should be the acceptance of our strengths and weakness, likes and dislikes, light and darkness.


Listen, each and every one of us has a shadow side. It doesn’t mean that we beat the shit out ourselves or falsely try to suppress our impulses with some unreachable moral purity code; it does mean that we recognize, understand, and see our dark side for what it is. When it arises, we notice it, acknowledge it, address it, and move on.


Where does this proliferation of selfishness come from? I believe there are many reasons we witness this in our leaders, not the least of which is simply human nature. We have a strong survival instinct, and we also have an ego that strives to separate us from others and their performance, even if such comparisons are an illusion. Leaders who are selfish, controlling, desiring power and power’s trappings are most often fearful of uncertainty and their own inadequacies.


Our Western Capitalist foundations, especially as witnessed in the United States, is firmly entrenched in the individual and in individual rights, and in many ways rightly so. It is far from being a perfect model, but it is by far the best system currently out there. Sadly, what we have seen over the decades is a shift from healthy self-determination toward a selfishness devoid of the common good.


Successful businesses, those that are achieving results and have healthy cultures, are like societies and must have a shared sense of the state of the whole and how the individual affects the health of that whole. Without that sense, we create citizens and leaders who spend their lives lost in the pursuit of the never-realized more – more success, more money, more accolades, more promotions, more titles, more power, more trappings of wealth, more consumption, more accumulation the pursuit of which is ultimately insatiable and never as satisfying as hoped for. In and of itself, this pursuit of more is empty.


The most memorable leaders are those who are unselfish and who demonstrate a never-ending self-lessness that leaves us with no choice but to follow. But this level of self-lessness is truly difficult, so difficult in fact that if can be exhausting for a good leader. This is particularly so for those of us who are introverts; every personal transaction, act of giving or giving in, every act of compromise takes something out of those with this personality type.


Leadership is generally thankless, and we must build and maintain a strong foundation of health, soul-work, and whatever else may be required to keep the wolves of mental illness at bay. Burnout is more common than we likely admit; depression happens under the cover of pride and fear and, in its worst form, it can lead to death – emotional, spiritual, and/or physical. Selfless leadership has a cost; it is the price we pay for wanting the best for our people, for the organizations that we lead, and for the communities that we are part of.


Nelson Mandela once said (and what an honour it is to quote him), “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially as you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”


Right, so we know that leaders who act from selfishness are not effective and that selfless leaders are much more likely to have their team rally around them. Hill also makes the critically important point that what motivates us is not money alone, but recognition and appreciation. We all feel buoyed up when we are told by our boss that we are doing good work, that we and our work are valued. This goes so much further than the effort required – it is exponential.


Yes, compensate well, competitively, and fairly. Engage your people by involving them in the company philosophy and objectives. Seek and value their input. Lead the team steadily, professionally, and objectively. Communicate often, both formally and informally – I recommend formal quarterly conversations. And offer praise and gratitude for the tremendous contribution that your people are making to the health and long-term success of the enterprise.


There is much to admire in these self-less leaders and the cost that this type of leadership bears. It is ultimately the style of leadership that most of us respond to and that, at the same time, ultimately produces the highest levels of performance, both individual and communal.


Until next time!

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