Selfless Self-Leadership



Selfless Self-Leadership

Selflessness is the only appropriate response to knowing that our ‘self,’ our ego, is a mere product of our imagination,” said Steven Worrall, managing director of Microsoft Australia. He is spot on. We have no fixed and solid self. This is a neurological, biological, and psychological fact. Instead, all we have is a brain that constantly refers to ourselves, creating the illusion of a fixed and solid self.

Over the past thirty years, psychologists and neuroscientists have searched for the brain’s control center—the one place where orders come from, the center of our ego, our “I,” our true “self.” Despite there being billions of neurons in the brain, no control center has been identified as the essence of an individual or a self.

From a scientific point of view, we appear to be an amazing collection of extremely complex systems and processes. Despite having no control center, we’re neurologically disposed toward the illusion of having an inherently existing self. We tend to experience ourselves as clearly defined, fixed entities with specific characteristics and properties. But according to leading researchers, in reality, the ego is a creation of our imagination. The ego is a constantly self-referential voice that creates the impression of a solid, stable, and inherently existing I that runs the show.

In truth, though, it’s just a transitory self-image that changes through neurotransmitters, hormones, and synaptic reactions.

To explore this idea further, take a moment to reflect on your experience with the awareness training introduced in chapter 2. When you were observing your thoughts, who was doing the observation? If you’re not your thoughts, then who exactly are you? Take some time to think about these questions and consider the ramifications.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean you don’t exist. Rather, it means you don’t exist in the way you think you do. If this sounds strange, then test it out for yourself. When you’re training open awareness and you notice a sensation somewhere in your body, see if you can pinpoint what part of you is having the sensation. At some point, you’ll discover what many people have realized—it’s impossible to find exactly what part of you is experiencing the sensation. Instead, you’ll find a lot of processes. There will be thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sounds, but you won’t be able to localize the owner of the sensation. The logical conclusion is, you’re not as clearly defined as you thought.

This may seem strange, but if there’s no specific owner of any experience, then it opens up a world of possibilities. If our ego is not fixed and is just something we’ve created, we can change it.

Nothing is fixed. Everything is potential.

The insight that everything is potential and that there is no solid, isolated self means we can redefine ourselves. We can break free of our own limited definitions of who we think we are, and, equally important, who we think others are. New possibilities open up in every situation we encounter. We have the choice to define all people and all situations based on our perspectives, however narrow or expansive they may be. When everything is potential, it offers each and every one of us an abundance of positive benefits. From a leadership perspective, it means we can be more of the leader we want to be—without our fears, defense mechanisms, and self-limiting beliefs getting in our way. This includes regulating our sense of ego, minimizing the traps it creates, and remaining grounded in the face of success.

In this chapter, we look at the illusory nature of ego, the problems it creates, and how self-confident selflessness is a sound approach to more effectively leading yourself.

The Problem with I

Ego equals problems. This could be the short conclusion based on various studies conducted on the role of the ego. One study from the University of California found that the more people use the pronouns Imemy, and mine, the higher the correlation to coronary heart disease incidence and mortality. Another study found that individuals with depression and anxiety have a higher-than-average use of first-person pronouns. A related study looked at poets and suicide and found a staggering result: their increased use of first-person pronouns was strongly correlated with later suicide. In contrast, a study published in Psychological Science found that when we actively start to use other pronouns, such as wehe, she, and you, and make less use of self-referencing pronouns like Ime, and my, our health improves.

Let’s look at this through a leadership lens. A study from the University of Texas found a clear correlation between leadership positions and the use of pronouns. People with higher leadership positions use significantly more first-person plural pronouns like we, as well as second-person pronouns like you and your. In contrast, people with lower or no leadership status overwhelmingly tend to use the first-person singular pronoun I when they speak. The study further found that individuals in higher levels of leadership demonstrate a stronger “others-orientation” in their way of talking. In other words, people of higher power status seemed to demonstrate greater concern with the well-being of the group as opposed to their own well-being, whereas lower power status people demonstrated stronger self-orientation.

Another study analyzed the use of pronouns in all forty-three Australian elections since independence from Britain in 1901. The more candidates used weyou, and us, the more likely they were to win—and win by a larger margin. Victors used more collective pronouns than their unsuccessful opponents in 80 percent of all elections. Across all elections, victors made 61 percent more references to we and us and used these terms once every 79 words. Losers only used them once every 136 words. The study again suggests that successful leaders are more others-oriented and have better ability to engage with and speak to the collective identity of themselves and the people they address.

So caring about others not only seems to be part of our nature as presented in chapter 2, it appears to enable us to be healthier and more successful as leaders. Yet it isn’t easy. Try this experiment. Set a timer for two minutes. When ready, start a monologue describing your day from when you got up until this moment without using Imemy, or mine.

Go ahead, give it a try.

If you found it difficult, that’s okay. In addition to being hardwired for kindness, we are also deeply programmed to look out for ourselves and see things from our own perspective.

Ego and Leadership

In our interviews with senior executives, we asked the question: “Are there any benefits of having a big ego in leadership?” The repeated answer was a resounding “No.” The leaders we interviewed recognized many of the downsides of a big ego: it makes you vulnerable to criticism; it makes you susceptible to manipulation; it narrows your field of vision; and it corrupts your behavior and causes you to act against your values. Let’s explore these downsides of ego one by one.

Ego Makes You Vulnerable to Criticism

Our ego is like buttons we carry with us that contain ideas about who we think we are and what is important to our sense of self. These buttons can be things like “I am an engaging leader,” or “I am a strategic thinker,” or “I am a team player.” In daily work interactions, these buttons can be pushed by others if they say or do something that goes against our idea of self. When that happens, our ego is triggered. In this way, our ego is like a target we carry with us and, like any target, the bigger it is, the more vulnerable it is to being hit.

Roy Harvey, general manager of EA Sports, had just overseen the launch of the latest version of the video football game, Madden NFL, one of the most popular video game franchises in the world. The upgrade was a significant investment, costing many millions. As with all software, first versions have a lot of bugs. With so much at stake, Roy had an entire team detect and rectify over 22,000 bugs before launch. One bug slipped through the cracks and Roy found himself in a meeting with angry stakeholders. They wanted to know how this could have happened.

Roy shared with us how in the moment, his ego felt under attack. He wanted to fight back, blame others, and deflect the criticism. His ego wanted to shout how thorough and diligent he and his team had been. But instead, as he explained to us, he told the stakeholders around the table: “We found and fixed something like 22,358 bugs this year. And we missed one. That should provide perspective for all of us. That’s the nature of software. And that’s why we have patches and updates.” He didn’t point fingers; he didn’t place blame. Instead, his calm statement of the facts settled people down and refocused the conversation.

Fortunately for Roy, he has been a practitioner of mindfulness for many years. He was able to understand the messages coming from his ego and resist the urge of lashing out or getting overly defensive. He knew that if he responded from a place of a wounded ego, it wouldn’t end well. Instead of fueling the fight his ego was putting up, he created mental space between himself and the train of thoughts and emotions coming from it. Using the mindfulness practice of being an observer of his own thoughts, he was able to step back and effectively disengage from the emotions. This allowed him to see the situation with more clarity. He was also able to take responsibility for what had happened and begin more quickly working toward a solution.

In Roy’s situation, his ego could have made a bad situation worse. It could have made it personal, driven by fear rather than focused on solutions. His protective ego could have directed the blame elsewhere. Mindfulness training combined with an understanding of ego helped Roy make the best of a bad situation.

Ego not only makes us vulnerable to behaving badly in the face of setbacks and criticism, it prevents us from learning from our mistakes. Our ego has a strong orientation to protect us from harm. But in doing so, it creates a defensive wall around us that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure. It can also make it easy for others to take advantage of us.

Ego Makes You Susceptible to Manipulation

Some years ago, we worked closely with the private finance division of a global bank to instill more mindfulness in their leadership team. One of the senior leaders had a very large ego. When he walked into a room, you could feel the size of it. He had a long list of accomplishments and good reason to be proud. But it was clear to us, and to everyone else, that he took credit for every success and valued himself above the team. It was also clear that when there were problems, he looked for someone to blame. Making himself look good was his primary focus, and he didn’t seem to care who he stepped on along the way.

It was obvious to us that others in the organization were aware of his inflated ego. We could see how easily they were able to manipulate him in certain situations. If they wanted a project to go in a certain direction, they would explain to him how it would make him look good—and he would do it. If they wanted to avoid something, they would tell him it would make him look bad—and he would avoid it. They were able to get him to make decisions and take on tasks influenced by their praise or caution.

Because our ego craves positive attention, it can make us susceptible to manipulation. And the bigger our ego is, the bigger the risk of being manipulated will be. An inflated ego makes us predictable, because it drives our behavior in obvious ways. And when people know it, they can play to it and become puppeteers of our actions. When we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may or may not be good for ourselves, let alone our people and our organization.

Ego Narrows Your Field of Vision

Anish Melwani, CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc., North America, shared how ego can narrow our field of vision because of confirmation bias. He contends that if we bring a big ego to work, it makes us search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. “Confirmation bias is often about ego,” he said. “We all hate to be wrong and we generally want other people to validate our ideas and positions.” As Anish described it, we end up seeing things the way we want to see them, and this confirms our belief in what we want to see. It can become a loop that’s difficult to disengage from.

Ego narrows our vision and makes it hard for us to see and accept new opportunities. Because of this narrowing vision, we fall victim to the limitations of our own success.

Marshall Goldsmith, coach and author of the best-selling What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There calls this the “success delusion.” Many leaders we’ve worked with suffer from it. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, the first social scientist to identify radical behaviorism, famously found that dogs, pigeons, and all other animals, including humans, tend to repeat behavior that’s rewarded. When rewarded for something once, we unconsciously persist in the behavior that led to the reward, regardless of whether the behavior is functional or dysfunctional. This may sound mundane and simplistic, but it’s the basis of the success delusion.

As we rise up the organizational ladder, our success can lure us into thinking that we’re great. We tend to believe that we’re the sole architects of our success. We subconsciously conclude that our past actions and behaviors led to our success, so those actions and behaviors must be the ingredients of success. As a result, we repeat these ingredients, believing they will bring more success. But there is no causal logic behind this thinking. Instead, it’s just our ego confirming biases through rewards and creating the delusion that we know the one way—the right way—to succeed.

The moment we give in to the ego’s success delusion, we narrow our vision and limit our potential. The moment we believe that past successful behavior will lead to present and future success, we’ve stagnated. We become blinded by our own success and fail to question ourselves and our behavior. We fail to see that the world is changing, people are changing, the organization is changing, and the demands on us as leaders are changing, and past action does not always lead to future success.

The success delusion is a crossroads that many leaders face around the age of forty. In our conversations with leaders, this is the age when some start to feel that they are stagnating. They realize that the strategies that got them to where they are will not take them to where they need to go. They must let go of past behaviors and reinvent their way of leading. But this is easier said than done. Keeping our ego in check is not easy.

Ego Corrupts Your Behavior and Causes You to Act against Your Values

Your ego is constantly looking for ways to improve your status and power in conscious and unconscious ways. And although the ego’s desire to protect us and ensure our survival isn’t inherently bad, if left unchecked, the ego can cause us to act against our better judgment. It can twist our values. It can warp our better natures. And unfortunately, becoming a leader is not always a good thing for our kinder, considerate selves.

Studies have found that power tends to corrupt our behavior. While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others—such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing—when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The more powerful they are, the more likely they are to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior. Studies show that people in positions of power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office. And people who’ve just moved into senior roles are particularly vulnerable to losing their values compass.

Think of the management teams at Wells Fargo, Uber, or Volkswagen, all of whom have come under scrutiny for unethical behavior. It’s easy to look at them and believe they were inherently bad people driven by greed and willing to cause harm to others. But that conclusion is overly simplistic. Remember that human beings are inherently kind. We have positive intentions for one another. But sometimes our intentions are derailed by ego, driving us to take harmful actions. We believe that the members of these management teams did not wake up every morning asking themselves how they could inflict harm on others. More likely, they were in the grip of their ego’s desire for more status and power, and they lost touch with their better selves.

When we’re caught in the grip of the ego’s craving for more power, we lose control. We become slaves of our own ego. And almost unwittingly, we end up doing things that are not aligned with our values. And because we are not always in touch with our true selves and thus our values, it becomes easier to make poor or egoistical choices. This does not excuse bad behavior. Acting in ways that are completely self-serving and causing harm to others is not okay. But with our ego-driven focus of getting more wealth, status, and power, at least we can understand where it comes from. Which, in turn, can help us in reflecting on these examples and, potentially, making better choices.

We’re all influenced and easily caught up in our ego’s desires. It’s just a matter of degree. In the words of Jennifer Woo, CEO and chair of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, Asia’s largest luxury retailer, “Managing our ego’s craving for fortune, fame, and influence is the prime responsibility of any leader.” Not only does managing the ego make us better and more effective leaders, it also makes us better human beings.

Having a big ego is a significant problem in leadership. It makes you vulnerable to criticism, susceptible to manipulation, limits your vision, and corrupts your behavior. Unfortunately, getting to the top can often make the situation worse because of a phenomenon known as the “CEO bubble.”

The CEO Bubble

A newly appointed CEO we interviewed shared an interesting observation. He noticed that since his promotion, people had started laughing a little harder at his jokes. He also noticed that people seemed to generally agree more often with his comments in meetings and the once-candid conversations he used to have with his pre-promotion peers were now not so candid. When offering thoughts and suggestions, his reports now seemed to hold back. But of course, rising to the top doesn’t actually make us funnier or smarter.

Instead, as we rise in ranks, we acquire more power. And with increased power comes increased insulation. We end up in a bubble, where we’re praised and supported more often than before. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center at Sloan School of Management, says too many CEOs and executives are in a bubble, one that shields them from the reality of what’s happening in the world and in their businesses. The result is that you can get caught up in a space that’s not very healthy for you or for your organization.

When we’re in the CEO bubble, we don’t get the tough feedback we need to improve our thinking and behavior. Also, we don’t reap the benefits of the 360-degree perspectives that a quality team can provide. Consequently, we lose wisdom and perspective. We become more narrow-minded. And we’re left with a version of reality that’s of our own making. As a result, we may slowly stagnate in our beliefs and strategies. If we don’t consider the perspective of others, we’re left to unconscious biases, our own inflated sense of self, and fixed beliefs. To be most effective, we must break free from the bubble.

But breaking free from an inflated ego can be hard. It requires selflessness and courage. The first step toward breaking free is to continually question yourself. Question your behavior, your beliefs, and your strategies. Look at yourself in the mirror every day with an open mind. Never assume that you have found the eternal answer to being a leader, because you haven’t. Leadership is about people, and people change every day. If you assume you have found the universal key to leading people, you’ve just lost it.

The next step is to support, develop, and work with people who won’t put you in a self-inflated, egocentric bubble. Hire people who are smarter than you are and who have the confidence to speak up when you may be wrong. This, of course, requires that you have the self-confidence needed to respond without ego and fear, a trait we’ll touch on later in the chapter. Less self-confident leaders tend to hire people less smart than themselves; people they can influence and manipulate. Anish Melwani shared with us how he hires people based on their courage to speak their opinions. People who have the courage to disagree with the boss help develop a culture of positive dissent and productive openness. This can lead to greater collaboration, improved results, and increased opportunities for self-growth. A significant step in creating this sort of openness—and applying selfless self-leadership—is grounded on fostering a true sense of humility.


Great leaders are generally not the types of people who publicly pat themselves on the back and trumpet their accomplishments. On the contrary, we’ve found that great leaders exude a strong sense of humility. Humility and selflessness are closely linked. You cannot be selfless without humility, and humility without selflessness is false humility.

Humility is not just a noble attitude; it’s a realistic perspective on individual worth. Because of the delusion of success, we as leaders can create unrealistic perspectives on how much we really matter in the bigger picture. In the scheme of things, even the best CEO is only one out of thousands of individuals contributing to a company’s success. Furthermore, the company’s success is heavily determined by market trends and large-scale global forces. Any company is merely the result of an interconnected string of events, actions, and intentions.

If you think your company is successful mainly due to your own efforts, ask yourself a few questions: Who trained and mentored you? Who schedules your meetings and manages your calendar? Who built and who maintains the car that takes you to work? How many people in your organization are doing a great job every day? We’re so interconnected with others, it’s impossible to know who caused or created what. Understanding this reality awakens a healthy sense of humility. And with this humility, a sense of gratitude to those who contribute to our success comes naturally. In this way, humility helps us better recognize and acknowledge others’ contributions. It makes us more appreciative and attentive to others, which increases interconnectedness and engagement.

Serhat Unsal, CEO of the global company Dawn Foods, has noticed how humility becomes increasingly important the higher you rise in position or rank. “As a leader,” Serhat explained, “your end goal is to succeed as a team. This means you need to give other smart, ambitious people the space to contribute.” The more senior you are, the more senior your reports are. And the more senior your reports, the more they expect respect and inclusion. In this case, your role is to be more of a listener and less of a manager. Your role requires being open to various viewpoints and includes a willingness to act as a catalyst for others’ success. To do so, you must be able to put your ego aside and embody a genuine sense of humility.

Edouard-Malo Henry, group head of compliance of global bank Société Générale, shared with us how humility is a quality that must be developed by regularly bringing it to mind. Before he enters a meeting, he has created a habit of mentally recognizing the efforts and skills of everybody in the room. “When considering how many hours of work, good intentions and experience my colleagues bring to the table at any meeting, I am humbled and grateful. This short recognition enables me to show up more humble and appreciative and better at listening rather than providing answers.”

As Edouard-Malo explains, humility is an inner process. And when exercised, it shapes how you show up. Humility is a direct way of keeping your ego in check and developing a healthy sense of selflessness. It does not mean completely dissolving the self, because every leader needs to have a healthy sense of self and a healthy self-confidence.

Self-Confident Selflessness

A general concern many leaders have about the concept of selflessness is that it will make them pushovers. That’s not necessarily the case. To be successful, leadership selflessness has to be combined with strong self-confidence. We call this combination self-confident selflessness. Self-confident selflessness makes you stand up and follow through with your ideas, while not being hampered by ego-attachment and pride.

Self-confident selflessness is illustrated in figure 4-1. We covered the details of each quadrant in chapter 1, but a brief review may be helpful.


The selflessness matrix

In this matrix, you have selflessness versus selfishness on one axis. On the other axis, you have self-confidence versus diffidence. In the lower left quadrant, you lack self-esteem, yet you’re overly concerned with your own interests—it’s all about you. In the lower right quadrant, you have a strong sense of self-confidence but you’re driven by selfish goals and desires. In this quadrant, leaders can achieve great results, but at a steep cost to team satisfaction and loyalty. In the upper left quadrant, you’re a pushover, with a strong possibility of burning out or being taken advantage of by others.

The upper right quadrant represents the sweet spot—a powerful combination of selflessness and self-confidence. You’re not worried about being taken advantage of, because you have the confidence to speak up for yourself if needed. At the same time, you have a strong focus on the well-being of your people and organization. You lead for the long run. You don’t worry about receiving praise. It’s not about you—your ego doesn’t crave recognition. Therefore, you give credit for achievements to others. This allows you to bring inspiration and inclusion. As an enabling leader, your mission is to contribute to the greater good.

Research by Jeremy Frimer and Larry Walker from the University of British Columbia found that the most successful leaders were the ones who had a healthy balance between selflessness and confident care for themselves. Calling selflessly self-confident leaders “moral exemplars” and “ethical giants,” Frimer and Walker examined the motivations and “personal strivings” of award-winning leaders. Through extensive assessment and analysis, they found that the most successful exemplars lead through what they termed “enlightened self-interest.” That is, they lead with both strong personal ambition and strong moral conviction—two seemingly contradictory motivations. Previous studies had seen “the self’s basic interests being fundamentally at odds with the person’s moral compassions,” but Frimer and Walker found that the two worked together to create “brilliance with wisdom” and “power with conscience”—the ultimate combination for exceptional leadership.

Leadership is a journey, and we all change as we go through it. If we don’t change, we don’t progress. The same is true when it comes to selflessness. Our interviews indicate that many senior leaders have a strong combination of selfless self-confidence, but that they have not always been that way. Selfless self-confidence is a balance that most of the leaders we interviewed found that they needed to develop over the years. Many of them indicated that the self-confidence had always been there, but balancing it with selflessness had been an ongoing journey. The starting point is valuing selflessness not just as something good to do for others but as something inherently good for you as a leader—something that you can do to be healthier, happier, and more of the leader you want to be.

Training Selflessness

Selflessness can be realized and cultivated with training. It’s a realization and attitude that we can enhance due to neuroplasticity—our ability to shape our neural makeup. As a result, the more we experience life from a selfless perspective, the more selfless our mind becomes. The goal is to train our mind so that selflessness becomes our default mode. Here’s a short practice to get you started (see “Training for Selflessness”). It begins with the basic mindfulness practice you did in the previous chapter and builds from there.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Commit to practicing selfless training on a regular basis as recommended in the app.
  2.  Every time you use, or are about to use, a self-referential term, pause and consider whether using a more inclusive term would be beneficial.
  3.  Consider ways in which your ego gets in the way of your leadership, and think of one concrete step to overcome its limitations.
  4.  Consider what “humility” means for you; if it is a value, consider one thing you will do to cultivate greater humility in your leadership.
  5.  Consider where you are in the selfless leadership matrix and where you would like to be; commit to one action that will help you move in that direction.






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