We have a major crisis in leadership in America across all sectors and organizations. The research confirming high levels of employee dissatisfaction, disconnectedness, and disengagement across all sectors for years nationwide is irrefutable.

A powerful solution lies in how we lead.

Leaders have to be selfless. We are ambitious for the mission and others never for our ourselves (Collins, 2001).

Leaders cannot think and operate or treat others transactionally viewing every interaction or decision through the lens of “What will I get?” Leaders forget about ourselves. We think sacrificially – what is best for our mission and those we serve?

When we do this, we hire and grow others who think that way too. It becomes the culture. A culture of serving and sacrifice not selfishness. We also achieve transformational results which selfish leaders and cultures can never really do. They can never attain or sustain greatness because they create the wrong culture and lack of a true team through the wrong leadership.

People say and do what their leaders say and do – act selfishly and do not be surprised if that becomes the culture. Act sacrificially – this is all about the greater good, the mission, and our team – and this can become the culture (with the right hiring).

If you expect to be thanked, applauded, remembered for the time you helped, or rewarded in any other way than seeing the success of others, the greater good realized, and the mission achieved, leadership is not for you.

Accept the reality that plenty of others – especially if the organization’s culture is not yet where it should be – will think and act transactionally and selfishly. Their time horizon is the promotion they want now. This never ever gives you the permission to think or act like that too. Don’t give it a second thought. When people act like people, lead them anyway. Show them a better way. Lead them to be sacrificial through your example.

Leadership is a lonely business. You will have many positional friends inside and outside the organization who think transactionally. This is especially true internally until you get the right culture and team. There will be many whom you help who never even think to come to your retirement party to thank you. I have seen it many times. You may have a small number of genuine friends who are actually concerned for you. Once again, accept this reality. Lead them anyway. Lead them to be better.

The key is hiring, culture, leading, and aligning incentives and interests so members of the team see that when the organization wins (mission attained, right culture, strong team), they also win (recognition, promotion) because they helped produce the right success the right way for the right reasons. That’s a good balance. That’s a healthy culture. If the culture is only “It’s all about me – it’s all I win”, that’s bad news. Who sets the culture? Leaders.

People who believe that thinking and acting transactionally is leadership will fail. As leaders, you will make that the culture and it will ultimately be your demise.

The reason is simple – they create and sustain a purely transactional culture so the mission and team are not the focus. “What’s it in for me?” strongly influences all thinking and actions. There’s no genuine loyalty to the mission or values or the leaders. People only work to the level to get want they want. When people have gotten what they wanted and the mission is in trouble or the leader is on the ropes, they cut and run. When the glue to you is “what can you give me now?” is gone so is their allegiance. Selfishness governs.

Leaders who think and act sacrificially succeed because all we ever wanted was to achieve the mission, make things better, and help others. We do things for the right reasons regardless of whether others do. We do things for the right reasons without regard for reward.

We will do this expecting nothing personally in return which is typically what genuine leaders get. To be sure, members of the team get things as they should (e.g. promotion for exemplifying the culture and values and high performance) when you lead sacrificially but leaders don’t want or expect things other than the mission is achieved and others grow and succeed.

You get only that which you truly wanted. If you wanted to be selfish, you will see and get a lot of selfishness. If you honestly wanted the mission to become reality, that will be your reward. If you wanted to grow other leaders, that is your legacy.

Selfishness is the enemy of greatness. Sacrifice is the path to greatness. This is a radical view of leadership in modern America – however, it is right and it is the only one which has been proven to work.

From the Teacher: Leadership Lessons with Dr. Saviak is a weekly column with the esteemed Joseph C. Saviak, Ph.D., J.D., M.A., M.S., Management Consulting & Leadership Training.


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