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Posted at 01:13 PM ET, 07/22/2011

Leadership character: The role of selflessness

This piece is the third installment in a six-part series on leadership character by Col. Eric Kail.

We’ve all had leaders who are really taken with their image in the mirror, so impressed by the power and influence they seemingly wield. They’re the center of attention, and pleasing them becomes the focus of all our efforts. It's easy for us to notice their selfishness as they push the people in our organizations to increase the bottom line. And yet they’re often unaware of just how easily we see through their shallow veneer.

But speaking of mirrors, let’s turn them on ourselves. The truth is that those we lead see through our facades just as easily as we see through the facades of those above us. So often we forget to serve those we lead and digress to forcing performance from them.

No one wants a weak leader, and no one should have to tolerate one. Selflessness is all about strength, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Weakness, on the other hand, takes the path of least resistance; and as humans, that means being selfish — wanting all the credit and none of the blame. Real strength is measured by what we enable our followers to accomplish through our service to them, not by the pressure of our grip and the weight of our demands. Attempting to demonstrate just how strong our powers of authority are as leaders is the quickest path to confirming our weakness.

One of the best leaders I've had the privilege to follow once told me: "To lead is to serve; nothing more, nothing less." His first concern was for how he could help those doing the most critical work of the day. He suffered no fools either, and yet he was not the focus of my accountability as a subordinate leader. Together we served those we led, and he always made clear that those following us deserve our very best.

It takes heart and soul to lead in a manner worthy of the respect of your followers. You need to be out front where the action is — not doing everyone else's job or micro-managing, but learning what the people of your organization really need from you. And when you ask them what you can do for them, make sure you are listening instead of waiting to talk. Shoulder the heaviest burden first and set it down last: that’s how you'll become a leader worth listening to. Being selfless is one of the hardest things you'll ever do as a leader, and it requires competence. We kid ourselves when we refer to "tough calls" as administrative actions we do from the comfort of an office chair. We make truly tough calls when we place ourselves in the direct line of sight of our organizations and ask ourselves, "Am I asking them to do something I'm unwilling to do?"

Selfish leaders generally fear two things. First, that they'll be exposed as incompetent. And second, that by their unwillingness to make the same sacrifices they demand of others, everyone will recognize them as an imposter and not a leader. Motivation from intimidation is a sure sign of insecurity and fear from leaders who, deep down, know they owe their followers more resources and less pressure.

Demand the respect of others and it will slip through your hands like water, where the harder you squeeze the faster it fades. But set your heart, mind and hands to selflessly serving those you lead, and their respect and admiration will endure. Look hard at whether your followers' loyalty to you is because of what you can do for them or to them. Selfless leaders get their egos out of the way in order to focus on the mission and those who accomplish it. Selfish leaders want their personal pride stroked by intimidating others and feeling important.

As leaders, we hold others — especially subordinate leaders — accountable. And yet we must be even more accountable to them. If you start to hear yourself say "I've already done that" or "that's below my pay grade," you’ve probably started to believe that others are there to serve you. Without regulation, we’re all vulnerable to leading selfishly. So first, be transparent with your own followers that you’re there to serve; and then, help others acknowledge the unrealistic fears at the root of their own selfish behaviors.

Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

More in this series:

Introduction to the ‘leadership character’ series

Part one: The role of courage

Part two: The role of integrity

Part three: The role of selflessness

Part four: The role of empathy

Part five: The role of collaboration

Part six: The role of reflection

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By Col. Eric Kail  |  01:13 PM ET, 07/22/2011

 
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