[November 22, 2015] As a new Private in the U.S. Army in West Germany in the mid-1970s, my fellow soldiers and I regularly and passionately discussed the personal deficiencies in our leaders. We saw (at least what we thought we saw) among them inflated egos and careerism. Typical of junior soldiers throughout our history of any military, we argued about the selfless or selfish attitudes of each of our leaders.
We believed, as many do, that the primary motivator of our leaders was selfishness and that their actions were meant more to advance them in rank, stature, and responsibility than to help us lowly Privates. In other words, we thought that they were acting more for themselves and not for the good of the system. Many of our leaders were overconfident and entitled, some were narcissistic and lazy, but more importantly they didn’t have much desire to take care of us, guide us, or ensure our wellbeing.
“To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one. You become selfless.” – Mike Krzyzewski
If were to ask most citizens of any country to explain the motivation of any one of their bosses, politicians, or community leaders, I think that most would give a similar answer that my army Privates friends did in our discussions. Many will argue the point, but to discuss the motivations of people – selflessness versus selfishness – no single one can be credited. Thus, we are all moved by both selfless and selfish inner impulses.
Decisions and actions by leaders should be based primarily on selfless motivations and when they align with selfish ones, then that is certainly acceptable. When either selfless or selfish acts benefit the whole, it can be argued that the leader has done the right thing. When those same acts benefit the leader personally and not the whole, then that is when the trust and confidence in leaders begins to wane.
We should therefore not be surprised that politicians are the epitome of a selfish leader. At least that is what many believe. Not unlike to the “me me me generation” who think very highly of themselves and lack empathy for others,2 there are leaders who are more concerned for themselves. Those leaders create toxic environments that make it difficult for others to succeed through merit.
Leaders need to be aware and the best of those leaders will ensure that their actions and decisions are for the benefit of all and that it is perceived that way. This lesson is often forgotten and it is no surprise that those army Privates may have had it right all along.
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