Selfless Leadership



Selfless Leadership

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.” Selfless leadership is about being invisible. It’s about recognizing that leadership is not about you. Selfless leadership is about fundamentally understanding that your success is based on your ability to skillfully develop the potential of your people.

Selfless leadership requires restraint. It requires holding back from micromanaging people and processes. Non-action can be the most powerful action for a selfless leader. This is not to say that selfless leaders sit back and do nothing. Of course, a leader’s role is to provide vision, strategy, direction, and guidance. But for selfless leaders, it’s done in a much different way than traditional top-down, power-based management.

Selfless leadership starts with the ability to be fully present with your people and cultivate an environment of trust. In other words, it starts with the solid foundation of the M in MSC. With a platform of mindfulness, a selfless leader can coach and influence people by leveraging experience and knowledge. Selfless leadership is about having the wisdom to develop and grow your people so they can shine and thrive with your support. It’s about becoming a truly enabling leader who helps her or his people perform in ways that could not be achieved through direction and management.

As leaders, we must rise above the constant flow of activity and keep our larger goals in sight. We must move from our natural tendency to be effective managers toward becoming inspiring, engaging leaders. If we try to be involved in every detail, we become a bottleneck. Instead, we need to be a catalyst for energy flow. We do this by allowing others to do their jobs and enabling them to have a sense of meaning and purpose.

In this chapter, we’ll explain what we mean by selfless leadership and explore some of the benefits it offers. We’ll then examine some of the barriers to selfless leadership. Finally, we’ll look at the most important qualities you can develop to more selflessly—and effectively—lead your people.

Being of Service

Shimon Peres, former president of Israel, said at his Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony: “Leaders have lost their way, leadership is about being a servant, not a ruler.” As we explored in chapter 4, the power that comes with leadership can be fuel for our ego. If mismanaged, ego takes over, and our leadership becomes about ourselves rather than about the people and the organization that we’ve been selected to serve. As leaders, being of service is our true power. And servant leadership is a natural application of selfless leadership. It comes out of the insight that leadership is not about us but about serving the people and organizations we lead.

Robert Greenleaf, former AT&T executive and author of Servant Leadership, makes a distinction between legitimate power and hierarchical power. Legitimate power is the power others offer you, which is based on what you offer them. Legitimate power is earned, not given. And it’s often placed in other people in an organization besides the formal leaders. Legitimate power is different than hierarchical and authoritarian power that has been assigned by a rank or a title. And in Greenleaf’s view, this legitimate power comes from acting as a servant to others.2 The notion of “servant” leadership can be slightly misleading, because it suggests that your role is to serve your people. Alternatively, selfless leadership is about being of service as opposed to just being a servant. This includes being of service to yourself, so that you can set effective boundaries. If leaders are focused solely on serving everyone else, they won’t be able to take care of themselves. And this means they’re unable to serve anyone well. In the same way, if a leader puts individual needs above the needs of the company, everyone will suffer, because the company’s performance will decline. In this way, selfless leadership requires more than being a servant to your people. It requires the balance and perspective to understand how to be of the best service to your people in a larger context.

Being of service means showing up moment to moment with an intention to support your people and your organization in the best way possible. Ted Kezios, global head of benefits for Cisco, meets with each of his team members every week and asks, “How can I help you do your job?” For Ted, being of service can include coaching people on how to address a challenging issue or helping them remove barriers. But being of service can also include providing tough feedback to support their development.

A Raymond, a French traditional industrial production company, is not necessarily the kind of business one would expect to adopt a selfless leadership orientation. In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, CEO Antoine Raymond realized that the loyalty and engagement of his people was the most important asset for the company’s survival. “An enterprise is made of people,” he told us. “And the success of the enterprise depends on the engagement of people. Each and every role is important. Everybody counts. Everybody deserves respect. So we invest in training our people in servant leadership, nonviolent communication, and mindfulness. This helps us create a collaborative network and an enterprise based on meaning. These intentions are shared by 100 percent of the people in the enterprise.”

Antoine realized that true connectedness, meaning, engagement, and loyalty is not nurtured through top-down leadership but by putting people first. As a result, in the years since 2008, A Raymond has invested in training the entire leadership team to apply more selfless leadership and to be of service to its employees, changing the culture and truly engaging its global workforce.

Similarly, John Cheh, CEO of 57,000-employee Esquel Group, based in China and one of the world’s leading producers of cotton shirts, views selflessness as a key to creating harmony. Organizational harmony is a mantra for him, both in the company and in the communities that the organization serves. For John, harmony should be a core objective for any company: “I see an emergent economic model that rejects the assumption that capitalism and selfless service are mutually exclusive. The reality is, many of the world’s great organizations have discovered that the more we put aside our selfish motivations, the greater the harmony within our organizations. And the greater the harmony, the more successful we become. This makes it clear, at least to me, that service and selflessness will lead to businesses that are more profitable and productive.”

Having a sense of harmony ensures that people in the organization are happy and that they find their work meaningful. With this sense of meaningfulness, people become more productive. In a sense, selfless leadership becomes a virtuous circle, offering benefits for leaders, employees, and the larger organization.

One clear manifestation of John’s drive to create harmony in Esquel Group is to link employees’ income with rising productivity. “We invest in technologies that raise employees’ productivity and their income. Not only does this create stronger social cohesion and engagement, it contributes to the society at large by increasing communal wealth.”

Research shows that financial inequality can stunt economic growth, decrease loyalty, and stifle trust. Reducing the income gap engenders mutual respect between leadership and employees. If leaders are not earning respect—and the legitimate power that comes with it—then the employees will not be engaged and productive. In this light, John sees selfless leadership as more than a moral responsibility—it’s a business imperative.

In our research, selflessness was rated as one of the most important qualities in leadership. When it’s not all about the individual leader, people have more trust, feel more connected, and are more engaged. Surveying fifteen hundred workers in Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States, the research group Catalyst found that selfless leadership strongly enhances people’s engagement. More specifically, the research showed that people’s sense of “belonging” was increased by more than 25 percent; their sense of recognition of their unique contribution was increased by more than 30 percent; and their citizenship behaviors increased by 27 percent.

These numbers prove an important point: selflessness isn’t just a nice philosophy—it drives business results.

But, as you’ll soon realize, developing a selfless leadership approach isn’t easy.

Barriers to Selfless Leadership

Very few leaders would come right out and say, “Leadership is all about me.” Yet when it comes down to it, many leaders act in selfish and self-serving ways. In chapter 4, we explained that this is not because leaders are bad people. In fact, the vast majority of leaders are good people doing their best to help their organizations succeed. Instead, the tendency to act in selfish ways is rooted in two fundamental challenges of the mind: the first is our fear-driven ego, and the second is our limited ability to understand how interconnected we truly are.

Ego and Fear

Selflessness in leadership makes sense in theory, but it can be difficult. When we let go of a strong sense of self—when we give our people more latitude, when we offer praise to others, when we take the blame ourselves—our ego suffers. The ego feeds on recognition, praise, influence, and fame. When it doesn’t get those inputs, it shrinks. But it doesn’t do so without resistance. That resistance often manifests itself as fear.

Fear is a big barrier to bringing selflessness into leadership. The fear of not being recognized. The fear of not being acknowledged. The fear of not being successful. On the surface, these fears may appear as a subtle physical or mental tension. But when analyzed, they can often be traced to a deep existential fear catalyzed by the following question: “What if I’m not successful?” This question can consciously or unconsciously drive the mind toward bigger issues: “If I’m not successful, my boss may be unhappy with me, my company may fire me, my family will abandon me, and I’ll end up in the gutter—alone, poor, and unhappy.”

The point is that fear can cause our mind to magnify small anxieties and turn them into deep existential fears.

To overcome this tendency, Michael Rennie, global leader of Organisation Practice for McKinsey & Company, has a ritual before every high-stakes event. He sits for a moment, allowing the fear to appear. He observes it with acceptance, letting it simply be. As he lets his fear be, without reacting to it or suppressing it, the fear gradually loosens its grip on his mind. In this way, neutral awareness of the fear neutralizes the fear. Over time, repeating this exercise will dismantle even the deepest existential fear.


One of the most powerful illusions we all have is that we’re independent beings capable of creating our own reality, making our own decisions, and determining our own fate. The truth is, this is a complete fabrication. None of us could survive on our own. Take a moment to consider a single piece of fruit that you may have enjoyed in the last day or two. Think about how that piece of fruit came into your hand. Consider the farmer who planted and watered the seeds. The person who picked it when it was ripe. The inspector who ensured it was safe to eat. The truck driver who delivered it to the store. The grocer who placed it in an aisle. And even the cashier who accepted your payment for it. And this is just a piece of fruit. The same chain of events—and interconnectedness—is true for everything around us.

This raises an important truth. Regardless of how independent we think we are, we survive thanks to many visible and invisible people.

And that’s just in relation to our physical survival.

Now consider your work, your career, your success. Sure, you may recognize the mentor who provided you with guidance. And hopefully, you recognize the people on your team and other colleagues who you rely on to do your job. But our interdependence goes well beyond the individual contributions we can see. Just as in the case of the piece of fruit, everything we do relies on others. But if we haven’t worked on dissolving our ego, we might still be caught up in the illusion that we are the sole architect of our own success. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have not survived, will not survive, and will not be successful without all the visible and invisible beings who support us in the millions of ways that our minds rarely appreciate.

Consider for a moment all of the things you have that you need to survive and be successful. We survive, and thrive, through our ability to work together, to collaborate and cooperate to support one another.

Although you may think you rationally understand this concept, more than likely you still have a good-sized ego that wants to cry out, “But look at everything I’ve accomplished!” Fair enough. You wouldn’t be a leader if you didn’t have many achievements. But to think that you accomplished these feats on your own limits your leadership potential by keeping you from cultivating the best in others. And, yes—others may not notice how much you did, or do, for them, and they may not give you credit. But this is a core tenet of selflessness: to not crave recognition and credit. In this way, selfless leadership goes against the traditional top-down leadership approach and provides greater opportunities for your people to learn, develop, and improve.

Grow Your People

Selflessness in leadership includes a strong commitment to helping your people grow. And not just by allocating funds for training, but by having a personal commitment to pass on your best insights and intentions. This is true even if it means helping them become smarter and more capable than you.

Morgan Tan, Hong Kong president of global cosmetic firm Shiseido, realized that her twenty-five years in business had given her a unique position to pass on experience to her people. She has made employee development her prime purpose as a leader. Morgan recognizes that she achieves exponential impact by passing on her experience rather than trying to do everything herself. “In my experience, really effective leadership is having the capacity to switch between being a mentor and coach,” she told us. “This gives less experienced employees valuable feedback, insight, and support, while passing down wisdom and institutional knowledge.” In this way, Morgan sees herself as less of a leader and more of a person shaping and expanding others. The mentor approach to leadership has transformed her into more of a catalyst and less of a manager. This leadership style makes organizational success about the other people working with her, and not about herself.

Morgan constantly looks for opportunities to put her people on stage instead of herself. She looks for recognition and credit that can be passed on, instead of receiving it herself. This approach offers two clear benefits. First, less attention on herself helps keep perspective of what is important. Second, and more important, is the huge satisfaction she feels in seeing her people grow, excel, and shine. In the long run, this leadership style prepares Morgan’s managers to be great leaders in the future, both within the company and in broader society. In this way, it serves a much bigger purpose than just focusing on the company’s performance and bottom line.

Selfless leadership is about acting as a teacher, a mentor, and a guide. It’s about giving your people room to flourish and shine. Think about it this way: If you fill the room, they can’t take the space. And when you leave, you’ll leave behind a big empty space. It’s wiser to empty that space up front and let your people take it for you. One way to do this is through the application of skillful action—and in many instances, skillful non-action.

Skillful (Non)Action

In Chinese, the word for leadership includes two characters. The first can be translated as “lead, command, or direct,” and the second can be translated as “guide or shepherd.” Take a moment to reflect on your own leadership style. How much time do you spend commanding versus guiding? What’s the right balance?

Serhat Unsal, CEO of Dawn Foods, has a clear answer to this question: “In good times, we must be humble and spend most of our time mentoring and listening. That way we develop trust, increase engagement, and build skills. But when times get tough, we must be more directional. At this point, we need the trust, engagement, and skills that were encouraged during the good times.” With a selfless leadership style, as described by Serhat, the key is to be mostly in the guiding and mentoring mode and as little as possible in the authoritarian mode. Finding the right balance between the two states is often more about the actions we don’t take than the actions we do take.

As leaders, we’re compelled to solve all the problems we come across. This is, after all, how we advanced to become leaders. But when we reach a certain level, non-action becomes an important action. Roy Harvey, general manager at EA Sports, finds that some problems are best solved by not solving them. As he explained, “With some problems, the best thing to do is nothing.” According to Roy, sometimes wisdom emerges in the form of not taking immediate action. “The easiest thing to do when you become aware of a problem is to push for an immediate fix. But often, when we’re looking for a solution, we’re actually looking in the same direction the problem came from. Instead, we have to look in a different direction. We have to look to others. We have to look inside ourselves. Or we just have to let things be. Non-action can give us the space to do that.” Over the years, Roy has been amazed to discover how many problems solve themselves or become obsolete if we leave them alone for a while.

There’s always an endless list of problems to solve and actions to take. There’s always more to do than we can do. But often, it can be more productive to refrain from action and instead do nothing. When we get caught up in reacting to every problem, we risk becoming a victim of action addiction. We get addicted to being busy, to checking off boxes, to clearing to-do lists. Doing so provides us with a sense of being useful and productive. But somewhat perversely, the more we look and feel productive as we race through the day—jumping from task to task, reading emails, messaging in a flurry of activity—the less productive we really are. It’s an illusion that negatively impacts us as leaders, as well as the people we lead.

Selfless leadership is the wisdom of refraining from action and to instead pause, clear the mind, and to take only the most important actions. It’s more effective to move one big rock every day than a thousand pieces of gravel. If you get buried in activity, if you become a victim of action addiction, your attention is scattered, and your work becomes unfocused. Nothing good comes from this, except maybe a huge pile of gravel. But, as Roy observed, many problems will solve themselves or go away, or may be better addressed by others on your team. With the right engagement and direction, ten of your people can achieve much more than you can alone. It’s simple math. In leadership, you must have the courage to endure the discomfort of unsolved problems. You must have the patience and resilience to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Striving to be selfless, to enable your people to take the lead with guidance rather than direction, can create challenges. Jennifer Woo, CEO and chair of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, a multibillion-dollar luxury goods company in Asia, shared how a senior leader in the organization found it frustrating that she did not seem to provide strong directives. He was used to having an authoritarian, top-down boss who told him what to do. Jennifer continually encouraged him to be more self-directed and independent, with her guidance as needed. He didn’t like this. He mistook selflessness for weakness and lack of direction.

In this way, selflessness and ideas like non-action seem to work against traditional leadership beliefs. But as Jennifer has found, today’s constant disruption requires a more holistic, less linear approach to leadership. In a disruptive world, leaders must break free of their own ego bubble and create a work environment that is relevant to their people. However, if leaders are action-addicted micromanagers, everyone suffers. And while Jennifer has experienced challenges in helping some people understand the benefits of a selfless leadership style, she has seen that it is worth it in the long run. “At first, some people are confused when I refrain from taking directive action. But quickly they realize it leaves a space for them to step in and create their own approach and direction. Initially it is uncomfortable for both myself and others, but when we get into the habit, it is liberating for both parties.”

Let Go of Status

PepsiCo president and chairman Indra Nooyi had a great leadership lesson on the day she got the news of her appointment in 2001. Understandably, she was pretty excited to go home and share her big news with her mother. But things didn’t go exactly as she hoped:

“I’ve got great news for you,” I shouted. She replied, “It can wait. We need you to go out and get some milk.” So I go out and get milk. And when I come back, I’m hopping mad. I say, “I had great news for you. I’ve just been named president of PepsiCo. And all you want me to do is go out and get milk.” Then she says, “Let me explain something to you. You may be president of PepsiCo. But when you step into this house, you’re a wife and mother first. Nobody can take that place. So leave that crown in the garage.”

Her mother’s lesson was that you may have a very important role, lots of responsibilities, a big paycheck, a fancy house, and expensive cars, but if you start to think you are something really special, you’ll become your own worst enemy.

In most corporate cultures, we create identities based on our status. When we enter a meeting room, we’re conscious of our role and our place in the hierarchy. We then choose our seat based on those factors. The most senior leader often sits at the head of the table, with assistants sitting on the side. This positioning often happens unconsciously and represents the ego’s way of reconfirming its sense of status and identity.

When we create these identities, however, we’re also creating a separation between ourselves and the people we work with. If I see myself as of higher status than the person I’m talking with, there’s separation. The same is true, of course, if I see myself as of lower status. And separation is never conducive to establishing a true connection with others and helping people find meaning and purpose. If we as leaders identify with our superiority, we can’t truly connect with the people we lead. Similarly, if we identify too ardently with our own organization while working with clients or collaborative partners, we create another barrier.

For many of the leaders we interviewed, the connections between people matter far more in business than anything else. Through decades of experience, they’ve found that their ability to truly connect with people is the key ingredient for ongoing, long-term business relationships. In their experience, selflessness is the key to creating this type of relationship. Many of them described how they engage with their people as “a person to a person”—as two equal human beings interacting on an equal level—rather than as a leader to a subordinate.

To prepare each day, to help shed status and ego, leaders can follow a morning ritual. Before entering your office or a client’s office, sit in your car for a few minutes and reflect on your identity. Like peeling an onion, pull away the layers of self-created identity. Let go of your leadership status. Let go of your identity as a businessperson, lawyer, or consultant. Let go of your belief systems, of your constructs like gender or age. At the end, you’ll be left with a sense of agile and focused presence. This practice helps remove separation and enhance unity. It helps you rid yourself of the barriers ego normally erects between yourself and others.

This doesn’t mean there’s no place in leadership for status and hierarchy. Our leadership status is an important lever in those few cases in which we need to make a tough choice, a critical decision, or a clear call. In these types of cases, our status, our power, is critical to making people accept our choices and follow our decisions. But this power must be used sparingly, combined with selflessness and an open interest in listening to diverging perspectives.

Give Credit, Take Blame

Wenli Wang, partner in charge for the San Francisco office of Moss Adams, a US accounting firm, is passionate about supporting the growth and development of her people and believes that sometimes people need to be put in uncomfortable situations to grow. She looks for chances to create development opportunities for members of her team and has a clear message for them: “If you succeed, you will get all the credit. If you fail, I will take all the blame.”

She shared a story with us about a team member who had made a mistake. And it was a big one. Mistakes in any profession are not good, but for an accounting firm, mistakes can have long-term negative implications. Wenli sat down with the team member and talked through what had happened and what could be learned from it. There was no blame assigned, only a true intention to understand and see what could be done. Then she sat down with the team member and called the client. Wenli let the client know that she had made a mistake and apologized for the error. She shared how she was able to find a solution and fix the issue to “make the client whole.” That’s selfless leadership in action.

To be truly selfless leaders, we shouldn’t look for credit for every success. On the flipside, as selfless leaders, we shouldn’t fear taking the blame for failures. Following this advice sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s difficult. If we avoid praise, our ego fails to gain the recognition it craves. And when the blame hits, it’s painful. The fact is, selflessness isn’t easy. But it’s the job of leaders to keep their egos in check. That’s the only way their people can grow, thrive, and do great work.

When we create a safe space for failing—one in which we shoulder the blame—our people can take bigger risks and be more creative. They’ll feel a greater sense of trust and autonomy that leads to increased commitment. And only when they feel comfortable experimenting—and failing—can they learn how to be more successful. IDEO, the world-renowned design firm, coined the slogan “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.” With a similar objective, accounting software company Intuit gives out special awards for the best failures of the year. Cofounder Scott Cook explained that it teaches people to take risks in order to generate the next great idea. Creating this type of safe space begins with developing a sense of radical acceptance.

Radical Acceptance

A senior consultant on Michael Rennie’s team at McKinsey & Company, shared a story. He was asked to organize a meeting between Michael Rennie and the CEO of one of McKinsey’s largest clients. He contacted the CEO. He booked the meeting room. He notified other McKinsey team members. He aligned everyone’s calendar, ordered the refreshments, and finalized all the specifics. But he overlooked one detail—he forgot to invite Michael himself.

At the meeting, the CEO waited impatiently, but Michael never showed up.

After what felt like an eternity, the CEO got up and shouted, “Screw all of you. If you’re not going to show up to meet with me, I’m not waiting around to meet with you.” He then stormed out of the room.

When the consultant realized the magnitude of his mistake, he didn’t know how to tell Michael. This was a big client. This was a big mistake. And it could signify the end of the account, the relationship, and then maybe his career.

When he told Michael, it didn’t go quite as expected. To his surprise, Michael laughed. It wasn’t that Michael didn’t take the situation seriously—he did. But it had happened. And it couldn’t be reversed. It was what it was. Getting upset about it wouldn’t help anyone or anything.

Radical acceptance is the wisdom of not making a bad situation worse. And selflessness helps us have radical acceptance, even in situations that are truly bad. With selflessness, our ego is curbed, leaving few buttons that can be pressed. We keep the ego in check, so it doesn’t get the best of us. In the scenario above, selflessness allowed Michael to keep his head clear and focused, to see the humor in the situation, and to thoughtfully approach the mistake. With this clear, thoughtful approach, Michael and the senior consultant were able to sincerely apologize to the client and make up for the mistake—which was nothing more than an innocent slip-up. Without selflessness, Michael’s ego would have instigated anger and likely led to a panicked over reaction.

Acceptance is easy to talk about. It makes sense in theory. But when you’re in the middle of a crisis, when your key performance indicators are plummeting, when there’s pressure from all sides, when you’re not getting enough sleep, that’s when your capacity for acceptance will be tested. It sounds hard … and it is. But there is good news. All the qualities needed for selfless leadership—humility, calmness, and acceptance—can be cultivated through training.

Training Selfless Leadership

Selflessness is a basic quality. It’s not spiritual. It’s not weird. It’s not even emotional. It’s merely a realistic assessment of yourself and your role in the world, and it can be trained.

Like any training of the mind, selflessness can be developed due to neuroplasticity, our ability to develop and strengthen new neural pathways. To strengthen these selfless neural pathways, all you need to do is experience a state of selflessness and abide in that state for a short period of time on a regular basis. As you practice in this way, your brain subtly takes on the quality of selflessness and rewires itself accordingly. The following is a short practice for developing selflessness (see “Training for Selfless Leadership”). It takes five minutes and is best done at the end of the day when you have a quiet moment.

A strong sense of selflessness is a powerful tool when we lead others. Properly understood, selfless leadership can increase engagement, loyalty, creativity, and happiness. Harnessing this power requires being of service to our people and our organizations. Selflessness is more than just a word or an intention, though. It must be reflected in tangible actions that improve how people are treated and valued within an organization. And this can only happen when we as leaders learn to manage our egos, nurture safe spaces, and foster radical acceptance.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Commit to practicing selfless training on a regular basis as recommended in the app.
  2.  Reflect on what “being of service” means to you; consider one tangible way you could be of more service to your people.
  3.  The next time conflict arises, take a moment to pause and ask yourself: How might my ego be getting in the way? Consider other ways of seeing or experiencing the situation.
  4.  At the end of each day, take a moment to reflect on one contribution someone made to support your success, and send them a note of gratitude.
  5.  Commit to one thing you are going to do to support the development and growth of your people through intentionally applying more selflessness in your leadership.






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