Causes of Leadership Failure – Selfishness


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Leaders who claim all the honor for the work of their followers are sure to be met by resentment. Really great leaders claim none of the honors. 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. – Napoleon Hill

[This is the 6th in a series discussing the causes of leadership failure presented by Napoleon Hill]

Let’s start by defining selfishness. According to Dictionary.com, selfishness is “[devotion] to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” It also offers the following, “relating to or characterized by self-interest.” With the preceding in mind, it’s appropriate to ask, “Is selfishness always bad?”

According to Vijay Govindarajan and Srikanth Srinivas, the answer is “No.” In an article appearing on the Harvard Business Review blog, they posit that there are times when it’s important to guard your own interests since that contributes positively to your team. How so, and under what circumstances? When a leader guards his own feelings in an effort to only maintain those that produce positive states of mind, it’s a good thing. We can all readily agree with their conclusion. A certain measure of self-interest is a good thing. So why does Napoleon Hill list selfishness as a cause of leadership failure? When we’re looking at the first definition above. Generally, when we think of the term selfishness, that is the definition which comes to mind. If a leader puts his or her own interests above those of his team, his peers, and the company, that leader is on a pathway to failure. How does such selfishness manifest itself, and how can we overcome any selfish tendencies?

It’s All About Me

Selfishness manifests itself because it’s part of our nature. A child naturally thinks of him or herself first. That’s why they’ll always choose the best toys, take the largest slice of pie, and grab all the attention they can. That’s why parents must teach children to be selfless, or they’ll continue to manifest selfishness in ever-increasing degrees throughout life. Indeed, much of the turmoil in our world today has it’s roots in selfishness. The apostle Paul under inspiration prophetically said “critical times hard to deal with” are characteristic of our day, and part of the reason for this is people “will be lovers of themselves,” displaying extreme self-centeredness. – 2 Timothy 3:1, 2, NWT

When such selfishness manifests itself in a business setting, it immediately starts undermining morale and eroding corporate culture. This is especially troublesome when displayed by a leader. Have you ever worked with someone who:

  • Stole ideas to appear better in the eyes of higher management?
  • Took sole credit for things requiring a team effort?
  • ‘Threw you under the bus’ by shifting personal blame onto you or others?
  • Dominated meetings in an attempt to force his or her ideas on others?
  • Was ‘always right,’ therefore making his or her opinion the only relevant one?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, you know firsthand the havoc a selfish leader wreaks on the workplace. No doubt the environment had a seriously negative effect on your drive. The “Monday blues” lasted all week, and you couldn’t wait for the clock to strike 5:00PM. That’s no way to spend nearly 50% of your waking hours; it’s a terrible way to live! If you experienced such feelings in the past, you don’t want to ever feel that way again. More importantly, you don’t want to put anyone else in the same situation.

It’s clear that selfishness has a negative impact on the workplace, particularly if manifested by a leader. Yet, selfishness is part of our nature. So what can we do to knock it down when it rears its ugly head?

Focus on the Benefits

I first heard a meaningful statement from one of my mentors, Mrs. Racquel Pilet. She said everyone tunes into the same radio station, WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). So while we all acknowledge the negative effects of selfishness, that alone might not get you to make changes in your daily modus operandi. However, if you knew there were serious benefits to YOU from weeding out selfish tendencies, you’re more likely to put forth the effort needed to change your habits. Therefore, what benefits come from removing selfishness? See how these grab you:

  • Greater company morale. When you consider others needs and not just your own, you immediately create a positive work environment. That not only helps your employees, but you as well. After all, you’ve got to work there too, and negative energy is an equal-opportunity depressant! This leads to the next point, which is…
  • Greater productivity. When people feel good at work, they tend to work harder. Often they work more efficiently. Why? Because they know you appreciate and recognize their efforts. When people feel appreciated, there’s no limits to what they can accomplish in order to maintain and even increase that appreciation.
  • Greater creativity. Not only are workers apt to work harder, they become more inventive as well. If your team knows you care about what they do, nurture their efforts, and have their back if things don’t go as planned, they’re more likely to come up with innovative solutions to challenges you face. All the preceding contributes to the next point…
  • Greater honor for you as leader. You’re not actively seeking it, yet it comes as a natural extension of putting others first. By giving all due credit to your team, they work harder for you, which makes you look good. This is true whether you’re a mid- or senior-level manager reporting to upper management, or a business owner delivering goods or services to customers.

Those are just a few broad-stroke categories. We could list benefits for days! The point is, there’s incentive for you to curb any negative selfish tendencies.

Overcoming Selfishness

No SelfishnessSo…how do you do that? In an article entitled Overcoming Selfishness, internationally recognized thought leader in the area of leadership and product management Michael Ray Hopkin suggested the following three steps:

  1. Think of others first. Every decision you make has an impact on others. This is especially true of those in leadership positions. True, you still have to make the tough call, and ultimately you bear responsibility for that choice. Yet if you consider how your decision impacts those on your team, you’re more likely to make a selfless choice. This isn’t new advice. Paul advised those living in the first century CE to “[keep] an eye, not in personal interest upon just your own matters, but also in personal interest upon those of the others.” – Philippians 2:4, NWT
  2. Practice integrity. A person who operates with integrity naturally gravitates towards altruistic behavior. If you incorporate this quality into your personality, you’ll automatically adhere to the Golden Rule found at Matthew 7:12, “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.”
  3. Develop trust. It’s extremely difficult for a selfish person to gain another’s trust. Once people know you are “in it for yourself,” they’ll only trust you to do what’s best for you – meaning they know you won’t look out for them. This requires that you consistently take into consideration your team’s needs when making decisions (see point #1) and stand up for them if they do what you ask, especially if things don’t turn out as planned. Once they know you have their backs, trust develops naturally.

Incorporating the above actions into your daily routine develops the Servant Leader persona that’s the hallmark of effective leadership, as advocated by Robert Greenleaf. The article The Best-Kept Secret of Our Business Generation discusses his philosophy in more detail. In it, he references the teachings of Lao Tzu and Jesus Christ, and shows how no less notable figures than Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and George Washington among others applied the principles they taught with dramatic effect. It makes fascinating reading.

Selfishness will cause even the most gifted leader to fail. Thankfully, we can counteract our natural tendency towards selfishness by taking simple, deliberates steps that help retrain our ways of thinking and methods of operating. Doing so will bring benefits to your teams, your organization, and yes, to YOU.

Do you find yourself leaning towards selfishness? How have you managed to overcome this tendency? Share your experiences, insights, and observations in the Comments below.

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7 thoughts on “Causes of Leadership Failure – Selfishness

  1. There is no one on the face of this earth (myself included!) who acts with 100% selflessness at all times. We all do things at least partially with a thought about how we ourselves are able to benefit from something, and we all appreciate recognition. The difference is a selfish person is purely motivated by their need for status and recognition and benefit versus the others who also seek to take others into consideration when doing all things. Since you know me personally, you can correct me if I am wrong, but I do not feel this is something I have a major issue with. I feel much more at peace and content when I know everyone around me is as well. The only way you can do this is to seek to make a regular act of putting others’ needs before your own. For some people, they may need to slow down at first and force their mind into this mentality. After awhile, it will become second nature.

    I have worked with some… interesting personalities during my retail management career, and the ones who were selfish had the worst turn over, the most discontented staff (if they actually DID stay), and customers who didn’t really care either way if the business succeeded or not, because there is always somewhere else to go if your company can’t cut it. Even if customers can’t see exactly what is causing that tense atmosphere, they can sense it. And they will cut their ties with your business (and bring their personal associates with them on the way out). So it is extremely important if you are struggling with the issues above to get them under control so whatever damage that has taken place can at least be alleviated. No one wants to work for those for like to bask in the glory but throw all the blame on others when something goes wrong.

    That said, I do want to thank you for the time, effort, and consideration you put into researching, writing, and proof-reading your blog posts. Much of the information you use can also be applied to other areas of our lives, and it would be wise for anyone reading to use what they find here as a mirror in which to view themselves and make adjustments when they discover something that needs correction. I know we all like to think of ourselves as good people, and that may be the case, but as imperfect beings, we all have things we can work on. There are always opportunities for personal and professional growth, and your blog is a wonderful resource for that.

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