Selflessness – the mark of a good leader, but beware of the dark side of this trait.

The Roman Stateman and philosopher, Cicero and author, Mark Twain shared a common love of language and in particular ‘brevity’; both attributed to the conundrum:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

As the author of this newsletter and the director of curriculum at Lincoln, the balance between brevity and providing enough information and examples to make the teaching useful, weighs heavily on me.

I also like to share with you what I’m thinking about in the hope that it will spark an idea to help you to lead more effectively.

Today I want to talk to you about selflessness.

I think this quality in people could easily go unnoticed and for some, it may even be seen as a lack of competitive spirit that these same people attribute to their own career success. However, the more I reflect on it, the more I think it ‘could’ be the number one attribute of great leaders.

I first became aware of this quality whilst sitting on the side of the runway at RAAF Base, Curtin (just out of Derby – take it off your bucket list!) waiting for 10 days for an airlift home after 3 months in the field training a small group of special forces officers and soldiers. 

There was a pilot strike (that just dated me…) and all of the RAAF planes were busy ferrying civilians between the capital cities. The senior ranking SAS member was in charge of officer psych selection and as a budding potential candidate for selection later that year, I had plenty of time to pick his brains.

I recall that he said that he looked for the person who, when down to their last drop of water or last morsel of food, offered it to others rather than take it themselves.

In an instant this explained why often the most muscle bound, toughest looking and biggest talking, almost never made it through the selection process.  Yes, they could meet the physical demands, but there was something missing – and this was always amplified when under physical or emotional pressure.

When I reflect on the people that have most heavily influenced or inspired me to do my best work (aka leaders), it is those that have displayed this single quality. They eat last, drink last, get on the back of the plane last, take a seat last and speak last. Interestingly they get out of bed first, take responsibility first and listen first. So, it’s not about the ‘sequence’ but all about this innate ability to put others ahead of themselves.

Even during a crisis such as the recent switch back into lockdown for most of us, clear direction and authoritative leadership is not only appropriate but accords with this same philosophy of stepping up in service of others.

Having said all of this, for those of you in the regular practice of selflessness, you’ll know all too well, it’s ‘dark-side’ – it’s exhausting.

Constantly putting the needs of others ahead of yourself, when you’re already depleted, can seem unsustainable and frankly unfair.

Being selfless is more nuanced than simply being a martyr.

Try these two things:

Learn to recognise the warning signs, early. I never served in a military unit without a 2IC (2nd in command). At the end of a long day of patrolling, where I was physically and mentally exhausted, it would be my 2IC who would instruct me to sit down and make me a cup of coffee. This is often all that I needed to get me through the inevitable night operations that lay ahead.

Who’s your 2IC and do you have this relationship?

Be disciplined in how much you take on. If you become too exhausted to function properly, you’re probably not in a position to lead very well.  When was the last time you practiced saying ‘no’ or at the very least, delegated work that you’ve been holding on to out of some misguided sense of what selflessness is in the first place?

Leadership is a scaffold of daily practices that takes hard work and effort on the part of the leader or manager.

Anyone who tells you that leadership is easy or something that you either have or you don’t have has in all likelihood (a) never led anyone and/or (b) has not done it well. That’s not to say it has to be hard… it takes ongoing conscious effort.

As you build your scaffold, think about the extent to which you can be selfless and importantly set a platform for this to be sustainable.

Best of Luck

Paul Ainsworth

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