The Unselfish Leader

by Andy Wood on October 8, 2011

in Leadership, Life Currency

Disciple:  Oh wise one, why do people put others up on a pedestal?

Guru:  Target practice.


Leadership is in the crosshairs these days, and it sure seems as though everybody has an itchy trigger finger.  The most hated man in the world is the President of the United States – whoever he is.  Change the name and face, we just paint new targets.

And Congress?  Ha.  First of all, they aren’t elected leaders; they’re elected representatives.  Second, until we can vote for all 435 offices, we’ll always love ours and hate everybody else’s.

But our hostility to leaders isn’t limited to government.  Whether in business and banking, sports and entertainment, churches and nonprofits, or pretty much any other endeavor, leaders are perceived as self-serving – even at the expense of employees and the good of the organization itself.

Is that fair?  No and yes.

Every day throughout the world leaders unselfishly give of themselves to make the world, their employees and volunteers, and their organizations better.  Stronger.  More sustainable and more successful.  Some are paid substantial sums of money; others are paid a fraction of what they’re worth.

But they don’t make headlines.  They don’t make people want to block streets and bridges to protest.  And they seldom show up on the radar of the hate blogs – unless, of course, they get caughty being naughty.  Nobody reports the CEO that just made major concessions to his own package so that a few jobs could be saved, or the pastor who came home late for dinner again because a church member was taken to the emergency room.

What does get reported is story after story of greed, self-aggrandizing, and a steadfast refusal to listen to the voices of constituents. Unfortunately, there is plenty to report.  And in a season in which people perceive their lives as much harder than a few years ago, that looks like a challenge to a fight.

Long-term success in leadership means being good with the tasks and being good with the folks.  You can get away with being temperamental and hard-charging for a while.  But sooner or later relationships come calling.  And Paul’s words (himself quite the leader) to the Philippians echo loudly:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Note to leaders:  Nobody ever protested a person in charge (what few there may be) who modeled that.  The problem is that the very nature of leadership and the power it brings is intoxicating.  And the pressure to perform in the short run often blinds us to the opportunities to serve and love in the long run.

In order to be relationally strong, somebody – particularly somebody in leadership – must be willing to let go of his or her self-will and do what is best for the greater good.  How can a driven, visionary, task-oriented leader model unselfishness?  How can leaders inspire others to let go of their own self-driven agenda and pursue the common vision?  Three things come to mind:


People don’t always have to get their way, so long as they have their say.  When constituents feel as though they are understood and listened to by those in leadership, they trust leaders more fully and follow them more willingly – even if it’s in a directly they didn’t want to go.

One of the things I learned the hard way is that as much as we love to inspire people with our grand visions, they respond to a vision that serves their own needs and interests – and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.

You may want to change the world; she just may want to be able to spend more time with her four-year-old.  You may want to reinvent [insert latest greatest thing here] as we know it; he may just want to quit having to moonlight to pay the bills.

The leader who can keep people on his or her team is the one who can identify the needs, the dreams, the vision, and the passion deep in the hearts of team members or employees, then turn his vision into shared vision.


This starts with a fundamental assumption about the other people on your team – in the words of Paul, you regard them as more important than you.  If that sounds a lot like Covey’s “Think win/win,” it’s because it is.  But leadership brings a whole new dynamic to that.  It’s one thing when best friends do this for one another.  It’s another thing when leaders have the courage and humility to put this into practice.

This is a place where lip service collides with, well, just about everything.  It’s one thing to say you have an open door policy – it’s another thing to open the door.

It’s one thing to say that “people are your greatest asset” – it’s another thing to spend as much money on people development as you do on technological development.

It’s one thing to claim to be a team.  It’s another to share in the “team’s” losses and include the “team” in your successes and benefits.


Here’s a powerful model for winning influence from one the history’s greatest leaders:

“I was with you in weakness and great fear and trembling” (2 Corinthians 2:3).

That’ll get their attention, Paul.  Obviously he’d never hired an image consultant or gotten any expert advice on how to look apostolic.  He would certainly have been coached, “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” and “Never, never, never expose any weaknesses.”

Yet Paul was as transparent as he could possibly be.  And that starts with being with people.  Any leader who claims to be real but isolates himself from people has an appointment with hypocrisy and stupidity.

Vulnerability (with discernment) is also critical.  Let constituents see your feelings.  Just make sure they’re you’re feelings, not something conjured up to make an impression.

No, authentic doesn’t mean unwise.  As a wise counselor once advised, “Admitting mistakes is like throwing up the poisons inside you.  It’s a cleansing thing.  But I want to remind you, you don’t have to vomit all over everybody.”

What it does mean is that the image you project to those you lead is consistent with the person you are when nobody’s looking.  Yes, that means integrity.

What does authenticity have to do with unselfishness?  By being transparent, you are empowering people to form opinions of you based on truth – even when the truth is inconvenient or humbling.  You are entrusting yourself to them, and receiving trust back from them – even if the trust doesn’t come bundled with approval.


Empathy, equality, and authenticity may not earn you a lot of attention in the public eye.  But it will earn you the respect, trust, and commitment of those who work closest to you.  It may involve some risk and short-term sacrifices.  But it will earn you a long-term army of defenders, supporters, and loyal team members.  And it just may keep you from being shot at.

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