Sunday, January 11, 2009

In Praise of Selfishness as a Leadership Behavior - Part I

On the many friends and acquaintances who have been cut down by cancer, three good friends, two women and a man, stand out because they died fairly close in time to one another, relatively young, and sharing a way of being in the world which is pretty uncommon in my experience.

They were totally other-directed. Their satisfaction and gratification in life stemmed from the pleasure they brought to the lives of others, not to themselves. They were each known as a "people-person" with a wide network of friends and associates who they valued more than they valued themselves. They shunned attention and credit and found joy in the success of people they helped. They are the kind of folks Harold Kushner wrote about in his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They were Good People. I am well aware that a sample of three is evidence of nothing at all, but in my grieving after the third death I began to wonder whether there is a connection.

These thoughts came back to me yesterday when I read Samuel Freedman's weekly column in the New York Times on the systematic health problems of Methodist pastors.

People, like clergy, who are unusually other-directed have a difficult time taking care of themselves. And they have a difficult time letting anyone else take care of them. They are much better at giving than receiving. But for most people life is not always easy. And, for people exercising leadership, life is fraught with difficulty and danger. Living that way takes a toll physically, emotionally and mentally.

And in our work with people trying to exercise leadership all over the globe and in all kinds of situations, we often find that they have a hard time paying enough attention to their own basic needs.

Think of this continuum. At one end are people who see the world and live their lives only through their own lenses and are incapable or unwilling to see how it looks to anyone else. You tell them a story and their response is to tell you one about themselves. They are the center of the universe and the rest of the world revolves around them. Next are people who are focused primarily on meeting their own wants. Their satisfaction in life comes from satisfying their desires. They often conflate - or confuse - needs and wants and justify their acquisitions or their indulgences in the language of necessity rather than desire. If we think of those in category one as The Self-Absorbs, we think of these folks as The Merely Selfish. They think of themselves first, but not all the time. Neither of these folks think very much about trying to exercise leadership on behalf of a purpose that goes beyond their own individual aggrandizement.

Then there are people who are just self-absorbed enough to make taking care of themselves a high priority, even though they spend a lot of time and energy in the service of others. They try to exercise leadership, and take risks in doing so, but not without allocating time and resources to anchoring and preparing themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. They are The Self-Carers.

Finally, there are those on the far end, like my three dear friends, who treat taking care of themselves as diversionary self-indulgence, taking them away from their purpose in life, rather than preparing them for longevity and sustainability. They are The Selfless.

Being selfless is no virtue. It gives away power to others who can make your life satisfying or not without you having a say. It forces you to suppress your normal human needs for affection, recognition, and identity. And it often results in your neglecting to take care of yourself in more mundane ways: eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercise.

In this vein, I was struck by the criticism of President-elect Obama for taking a family vacation at a plush house in Hawaii. Ridiculous. He is about to begin the world's most difficult job at an unusually challenging moment in history. I want him to be as rested as he can, as physically fit as possible, and as connected to his family as he has ever been before he takes on the really tough issues that lie ahead. And we all remember how Bill Clinton worked and partied to the point of exhaustion in the period between his election and his first few months in office, and the many missteps he made during that time.

When you are exercising leadership, trying to help people deal with difficult issues, being selfish enough to meet your own physical and emotional needs, to prepare yourself to operate well under stress, to be able to withstand the criticism and push back you will receive, is a noble effort. If you, or Barak Obama, scrimps on that work, you are likely to make mistakes and misjudgments in your leadership initiatives as well.


Mama said...

Thank you Mr. Linsky for giving thought to this behavior. We are to love our neighbor as ourself. The selfless would be abhored to disregard their neighbor's physical, emotional, mental and/or spiritual malaise yet do so to themselves. However all is not what it seems. There is another thought on selflessness. That is.... could there be a greater good attained for others that we fail to see at present? Self sacrifice then is most noble.

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