A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials: The ABC’s of Leadership: “S” is for Selfless

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”  Veronica Roth

The book ‘The Selfless Leader’ by Stephen Brooks begins with the premise that we are all innately selfish.  Analyzing the moral decay in every segment of our society, whoever coined the phrase “follow the money” nailed it, and it can safely be asserted that the majority of people in authority are greedy and will go to great lengths to protect their power and control. These people are motivated by money, rank and position. Money, rank and position gives them a distorted sense of power.

They expect respect without having to earn it.

In the work I am doing with emotional intelligence, it never ceases to amaze me how tuned in these people are to their own emotions, what makes them happy, sad, angry, motivated etc.; yet totally clueless on how others feel and why they feel the way they do.  Bottom line for these people, it’s all about them. Does this remind you of someone you know? Odds are you know many of these people. Yes, they are tuned in to their emotions but because of their selfishness the emotions of others don’t even cross their minds.Contrast this to the huge number of people who are not motivated by money or power to help others; the health care workers, firefighters, first responders, the military, and police. What motivates them is to serve, protect, defend and heal others.

Also, we should recognize as Sylvia Mathews observed, “Day after day ordinary people become hero’s through extraordinary and selfless actions.”

“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that would result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the ‘Four Horsemen of Calumny’ – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear”.

These few, simple and powerful words spoken by a member of Congress are a timely example of selflessness, putting her political future at risk, to encourage her fellow Republicans to stand up to the forces that threaten democracy.

Sadly these are not the words of a current member of Congress. They were made on June 1st. 1950, by Margaret Chase Smith who became the first members of Congress to denounce the anti-communist witch hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy in ‘A Declaration of Conscience’ speech.

What we are witnessing today is the selfishness of politicians who have and are selling their souls to protect their power and control, or simply to get re-elected. What they are proving is that they are politicians but not leaders. Leaders are people who dare stand up to those whose intent is to destroy and destruct.

Based on extensive research I have done on organizational dynamics, the ‘Four Horsemen of Calumny’ – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear is not unique to politicians, it is evident in most organizations and institutions. Evidence of this is the exposure of wrongdoings in every segment of our society where the common thread is these behaviours and actions were open secrets for years and in some cases decades. My first book, ‘From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Our of the Line of Fire’, describes why people are fearful of challenging authority, which is a tactic used by bullies, turning their targets and victims into villains.

Understandably, targets and victims are reluctant to come forward. What is not acceptable, however, is for bystanders, particularly those in leadership positions, to remain silent. For those in leadership positions who do not become witnesses, defenders, protectors and resistors when others are harmed, because it puts at risk their own personal position, are selfish and should not be regarded as leaders.Stephen Ambrose in his book ‘Band of Brothers’ profiled Major Dick Williams, who led his band of brothers from the D Day landings to the German surrender, bravely and selflessly. Williams did not consider himself a hero and did not want any credit for what he had done, crediting instead his men, especially those who lost their lives for their country. Williams, in his book, ‘Beyond the Band of Brothers’ asserts his ‘10 Principles of Leadership’, in which his selflessness shines through. They are:

  1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence and courage.
  2. Lead from the front. Say ‘Follow me!’ Then lead the way.
  3. Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
  4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop team work.
  5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their jobs. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
  6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
  7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who gets the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
  8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every day and ask if you did your best.
  9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. The key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, because you are a leader of character.
  10. Hang tough! Never, ever give up.”

John Michel, a Harvard Business Review blogger, captured the essence of a selfless leader when he wrote – “the most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or foundation to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered.”

(Andrew Faas is the author of From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire and a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University)

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