Beyond Self-Interest: What is Leadership Really?

'Leadership is not about the next election, it's about the next generation.' ~ Simon SinekClick To Tweet

I’m curious about leadership and it’s potential to make a real difference in our lives – from the micro-level of families and communities, right through to the macro-level of nations and international partnerships. But I’ve always struggled to define it clearly. At least, to distinguish between leadership for good and leadership for… well, less good. It’s about power, and it’s about service. But all of these things can be manipulated. Which got me wondering about the role of self-interest in leadership…

Self-Interest Children

When I first started writing about leadership a little over a year ago, I wasn’t sure if I knew nearly enough to produce two cogent articles a week for more than a few weeks (and by the way, I’m still not sure whether my articles qualify as cogent).

But I was also fascinated with the idea of seeking what I cheekily call a “Unified Theory of Leadership”. The idea of distilling this illusive thing called leadership down to a truly useful and meaningful set of rules or identifying characteristics that would enable people to clearly ‘know it when they see it’. To be able to put their finger on what it is that makes one act leadership… and another one (by the same person or organisation) clearly not leadership.

Today, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ve found it. Let me explain.

Leadership as influence

'The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.' ~ Ken BlanchardClick To Tweet

There’s a compelling school of thought that describes leadership as influence. The ability to get other people to do what you want them to do. Or at least to do something they wouldn’t have done on their own.

Leadership Myths

This is compelling because we intuitively understand that a leader without followers is really just a single person doing something. And sometimes doing something influences others to act, but more often than not, it doesn’t.

However, influence can be deliberate or accidental. If I behave poorly in a meeting – I call out a colleague’s stupid idea in front of their peers – I’m pretty sure I’ve induced that person to behave differently. At least in meetings with me. It probably wasn’t my intention to create that impact though. I might have been having a bad day, or been frustrated that the meeting wasn’t going well…

Surely accidental influence isn’t really leadership?

So it seems plausible that we can influence without leading. So leadership includes influence, but not all influence is leadership.

Leadership as learnable character traits

'Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.' ~ Norman SchwarzkopfClick To Tweet

I’ve written about this before – the old nature/nurture debate. It’s reassuring for those of us starting out in our leadership journey to believe that leadership can be taught. Like accounting. Or marketing. Or driving.

Such traits include optimism, drive, energy, a dash of charisma, persistence, empathy, self-awareness… the list goes on.

Self-Interest Chess Strategy

And these things are great, and mostly teachable. This is reassuring!

Yet I know at least as many people with these traits who are not leaders as I do who are.

There are people who display many or most of these traits in an individual contributor role, but once promoted to a management  position appear to lose the plot.

Equally, there are people who can be fantastic leaders in one setting, yet display no leadership in another. Context seems to matter.

A perfectly capable leader can behave in a way that we see as inconsistent with leadership. If it was simply the presence of a suite of character traits, this ought not be the case.

Leadership as the absence of self-interest

'Only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life's deepest joy: true fulfilment.' ~ Tony RobbinsClick To Tweet

When I think of the people I aspire to be like – the great leaders throughout history, from national figures to the creator of the student volunteer army (which started in Christchurch literally to shovel poop-filled mud out of people’s driveways following the Canterbury earthquakes), the common characteristic isn’t charisma, or vision, or energy – though many of them have these things…

It’s a complete lack of self-interest.

Personal Leadership Contribution

When we perceive someone is acting without self-interest, we inherently trust them. Rather than spending a whole lot of time trying to figure out how I’m about to be exploited, I leap in and lend a hand. We don’t mind if someone ultimately benefits from their leadership (for example, they’re being paid) but that can’t be why they’re doing it.

It’s related to martyrdom, in some regards. Throughout history we’ve revered people who incurred (or risked) significant personal cost in pursuit of a higher purpose.

They have conviction – and that conviction can be followed through even at their own expense. Look at Steve Jobs. He was kicked out of his own company.

…or the perception of self-interest

'The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool.' ~ Stephen KingClick To Tweet

You might also notice that I carefully included the word ‘perceived’. Two people can interpret someone’s actions quite differently. Where you might see a selfless leader, I might see an attention-seeking jerk. This at least in part explains why not all leaders can lead all people. Some will always have questions about the leader’s motivations, and when that trust isn’t there, we’re unlikely to change our behaviour – or alter the course of history – at their request.

Self-Interest Kitten Innocent

Perceptions are important. But this is not an excuse to manipulate perception – it’s simply to highlight that we need to be aware of how we are seen – as that is what enables others to follow us.

OK – lack of self-interest – what does that mean in practice?

Well, to start with, it means you need to be clear about your own motivations. Why are you doing this thing? Is it for you? Or is it for someone else? And who stands to benefit most?

Are you just doing it for the title and acclaim? Or are you doing it because it needs to be done, and no-one else seemed to be doing it?

This is why leadership isn’t about job descriptions. And why some of the best leaders have no titles at all. We aren’t left questioning their motives, because they aren’t doing it for the kudos.

It also means we need to be mindful about how our motives are perceived by other people.

This is where some of those character traits do come in – like humility and service. It’s why we respect (sometimes even grudgingly) political leaders who donate their government salaries to charity. It’s why we tend to have higher levels of trust for public services where people risk their lives – like firefighters and (at least in some countries) police.

It’s why we have the utmost respect for those who die in service to their country. The ultimate sacrifice.

A unified theory of leadership… acting without self-interest

So what does this all mean?

I have come to see leadership as suspending self-interest in order to do what needs to be done, irrespective of the costs to yourself. Consequently, people will trust you, and ultimately allow you to influence them. They will respect your leadership traits – but actually, they’ll also excuse you if you don’t have them.

Because you enable them to believe that humanity is ultimately good. You provide hope that the world isn’t just full of selfish power-hungry jerks elbowing their way to the C-suite.

Because you enable them to connect with the altruistic parts of their own nature, and in so doing you inspire them to act in ways they didn’t believe were possible.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Now I just need to figure out what this means for preventing dangerous leaders from manipulating people’s perceptions of their self-interest (think fascist dictators and cult leaders)…

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3 thoughts on “Beyond Self-Interest: What is Leadership Really?”

  1. MY definition of leadership is pretty simple and basic.

    Leaders influence and inspire people to make positive changes. And they do it in a variety of ways.

    –with ideas–Thought Leaders
    –with their actions–Courageous Leaders
    –with their words–Inspiring Leaders
    –with their help–Servant Leaders
    I wrote an article on this topic a few months back. I’ll send you a copy if you’s like.

    • Thanks Paul
      That’s a nice definition, I like it.

      Curious though, who defines what is positive change? Some changes are positive for some and not positive for others… (Definitions of leadership fascinate me, so I’m always keen to chat about this!)

      Best regards

  2. Good question.

    I think most of the time the leader describes and defines the positive changes that are needed to improve the current situation.

    But it’s the different with the servant leader. The servant leader is asking –How can I help? So in that case the person being helped has identified the change or changes he/she wants to make.


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