Self Interest: The Achilles Heal of Leadership

One of the areas of leadership that I don’t think gets explored enough is that of self-interest. To the cynical, all leaders are self-serving and only focused on feathering their own nest, getting ahead or making a name for themselves. This is the “go to place” for disenchanted and uninspired. My belief is that leaders don’t necessarily appreciate just how powerful and how damaging obvious self-interest (or the apparent lack of self-interest) can be to their overall effectiveness.

Let’s put the concept of this within a framework of possibility. On one end, we have the completely dedicated, self-absorbed sycophant that holds a very focused and singular definition of success and that is self-promotion. There is only one reason for doing what he does and that is to get promoted, to earn more money, have more prestige and increase his positional authority. I mean really, what else is there? Typically, these types are accompanied by a stalwart belief that says the “end always justifies the means” and so whatever is necessary to move forward is “A-okay”. They also rarely question authority and are “head bobbers” when anyone above them in the chain of command is talking. Pushing back or challenging your boss is self-defeating so casually nodding is the way to go. For fun, I’ll refer to this type as “Bob”.

Now we, (the legions of the great unwashed, seeking meaningful leadership) might look at such an individual with some sort of revulsion or even horror but seriously, organizations love this kind of individual. Why? Because they get tough stuff done quickly and without complaint. Need someone to move to Nowheresville, Alberta? Get Bob – he’ll do it. Have to lay off a few hundred people? Bob is your man. Need to clean up someone else’s mess? Dial 1-800-Hi-Bob.

If you don’t believe me in this, take a quick look around your organization and start asking yourself who is getting promoted? How is the compensation system structured? These guys work 80+ hours a week and are driven to “succeed”. Interestingly enough, they are often not very loyal and after devoting themselves to one organization will often get poached to another for – you guessed it – a better title, bigger pay check and more upward mobility.

These individuals are tough to work for because they are managers rather than leaders. They only inspire those that are wired as they are – everyone else – well, they are either supportive or are in the way... And…these managers are very successful in spite of their transparent needs. Organizations love these types because they behave in expected ways, respond well to tangible manipulation and any resistance is easily overcome by another perk or a few more bucks in the annual bonus cheque.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the martyr. The martyr does everything for the cause or the purpose. He can work equally as hard as Bob, but he is forever undervalued, under appreciated and overwhelmed. Let’s call him Marty. Marty’s self interest is absent except when it comes to sympathy. Poor, Marty – had to work all weekend. Poor Marty will chase a loser of an idea right into the ground. Have something boring, trivial or a necessary evil of organizational life – Marty is your man. He gets it done – but is always waiting for the big payoff that never comes. No one notices Marty and Marty always gets assigned work that no one notices. Sometimes, Marty will have had enough. Then he goes wild for a very short period of time (i.e. he goes on a coffee hunger strike) …at least until someone pats him on the head and says good job – the company appreciates you…and then…back to the grind. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Between these two extreme cases of complete self-interest and no self-interest, is aligned self-interest and I believe that this is the only viable place for true leaders to stand. Complete self-interest tends to inspire no one except perhaps through fear or intimidation. Demonstrating no self-interest is often seen as false, incredible or as a vast vat of victimisation. Again- hardly inspiring.

Aligned self-interest on the other hand speaks credibly to the cynical belief that self-interest is always present while simultaneously linking a leader to the “common good”. There is a sweet spot in this continuum that accelerates leadership effectiveness. Leadership credibility is maintained – hey he is only human and of course he is doing this to get a raise – while at the same time, leadership as defined by being “in service to” a greater or common good – is also preserved – if he is successful then we all will be successful, or the entire organization will be successful. Interestingly enough, stock options were created to promote aligned interest. If the leadership does well, and the organization’s value increases then both benefit.

What I have found quite interesting in my coaching work is how often people are completely blind to the reality and possibility of the other end of the spectrum. Bob will continually ask, “How will that help me get ahead?” and Marty of course will say, “Well I would do that but I don’t want to be seen as self serving.” In essence, both do not see the possibility of aligned interest and thus become ever more entrenched in their existing perspective.

So if you can see that being a “Bob” or “Marty” places you at a place where you are leaving leadership potential on the table so to speak, then what would aligned interest look like for you? My suggestion to you is that if you can not easily define and articulate an alignment of your personal interest with that of the “common good”, then you are in fact not just leaving leadership potential on the table, but actually undermining it.

One last thought about “Bob”. I have found that the “Bobs” of this world can be extremely paternalistic in defining the “common interest”. Typically it sounds like, “This is good for me, and I know, (even if they don’t), that this will be good for them as well.” This sort of convenient and false alignment of purpose rarely convinces anyone and really, what sort of convincing should be required if you are truly representing the common interest equally as well as your own?


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Cheers, Gord