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Seven and a half years in hell. That was the bitter reality for James Stockdale. He and a group of fellow Americans spent seven and a half years as prisoners of war at the North Vietnamese Hỏa Lò Prison, more famously known as the Hanoi Hilton. While there, they experienced conditions that pushed them to the physical and psychological limits of the human experience.

James Stockdale
Stockdale exiting his A-4 fighter-bomber weeks before becoming a POW.

Stockdale was a fighter pilot who was shot down over enemy territory. He safely parachuted to the ground landing in a small village where he was captured by the North Vietnamese. He was beaten and taken to the prison camp.

When he arrived, he was the highest ranking naval officer in the prison. This meant that he assumed the mantle of command. He was now responsible for a group of men who were malnourished and beaten on a regular basis. They were suffering and living in subhuman conditions. It was far from anyone’s dream leadership position.

Yet he poured himself into caring for those men. So much so that he would earn The Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in that place.

He led the other prisoners in resisting interrogations. To stop this, his Vietnamese captors would confine him to a three foot by nine foot concrete cell in solitary confinement. They beat him frequently and without mercy. On at least two occasions, his captors broke one of his legs.

He also led in their refusal to participate in enemy propaganda. On one occasion, he had learned that his captors planned to take photos, video, and parade him around. They wanted to showcase to the world how well they treat their prisoners of war. They were going to use the face of this high-ranking officer in their propaganda.

This would have been pro-enemy and anti-American. Stockdale couldn’t allow them to use him in that way so he took drastic measures. He used razors to cut himself and then struck himself with a stool to disfigure his face. It worked. Of course, it resulted in more torture. But the mission was accomplished. They couldn’t use him for their propaganda efforts.

In the one of the most hellish environments imaginable, Stockdale became famous as someone who consistently put his men and his country before his own needs.

That choice didn’t cost him a promotion or a few extra hours at the office on a Friday night. His decisions cost him beatings and solitary confinement. His Medal of Honor citation describes how that “at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country.”

James Stockdale exemplified selfless leadership.

The Paradox of Selfishness

It’s common for people to be driven by ambition, ego, or outright selfishness. Make no mistake. This isn’t something that only weak leaders do. It’s something that we all do. It’s in our nature to try to make sure that our needs are met…and that they’re met first.

Putting your own needs first is a serious and difficult temptation. Patrick Lencioni covers this topic early and often in his book The Five Temptations of a CEO. The first temptation, he says, “is the temptation to focus on my career and my status.” He later goes on to say that “it represents the most dangerous of all the temptations.” You’ll come to understand why it’s so dangerous in short order.

Self-interest and personal ambition can actually be a fairly strong motivator for some people. Some people’s performances are effectively fueled by these qualities. These people, in their desire to advance their career or their status, are driven to achieve.

But therein lies a paradox: Any leader whose primary focus is their own success is placing a lid on that very success.

As John Maxwell says in his best seller, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness. If the leadership is strong, the lid is high. But if it’s not, then the organization is limited.” Selfishness is one of the fastest ways to put a lid on your leadership.

In his book Failing Forward, Maxwell goes on to say, “Selfishness ultimately hurts not only the people around a self-focused person, but also the selfish person himself.”

When your focus is primarily on your own career or interests instead of on the organization’s or your team’s success, you are creating a lid above which you and your organization will never be able to rise.

Barriers to Success

Self-focused leaders may, and often do, achieve some levels of success. They can even be good leaders. However, if you hope to make the leap from good to great, you’ll have to shift your focus away from your own interests.

By placing your own interests first, you are inviting several barriers that will inevitably begin working against you.

  1. People don’t want to follow those who don’t have their best interests at heart. They won’t want to follow you if you are feigning care for them. They especially won’t want to follow if you are overtly placing your own interests first.
  2. People won’t buy into a vision if the leader isn’t buying into it. In most cases, people buy into the leader first, and then the vision. But if the leader’s primary mission is to benefit himself, people aren’t going to buy into either the leader or the vision.
  3. People won’t have your back when they know that you don’t have theirs. This applies not only to leadership, but to any member of a team. People aren’t going to go to bat for you if you aren’t willing to do the same for them.
  4. A self-centered leader will foster a culture of self-centered team members. As people see that the leader is focused primarily on themselves, it won’t be long before a culture of “every man for himself” sets in. If you’re not putting the mission or your team first, neither will your followers or teammates.
  5. Selfishness closes off the pathway to further leadership growth. Without the desire to help others, you’ll never be able to develop and demonstrate key leadership qualities like empathy, hope, or compassion.

The long-term effects of self-focused leadership are degrading to your people and to your organization. It’s also degrading to you. Selfishness will lead to a life of isolation and loneliness. This is the paradox. You think you’re focused on and advancing your own interests. Yet the very act of doing so is sabotaging yourself and the people around you.

Level 5 Leadership

Consider one of the key differences between a positional leader and an influential leader. If people are forced to follow (leading by nature of your position), they are only going to give the bear minimum. They’ll do only what is required to meet the standard or to keep their job. But you’ll never have a team of highly motivated people who go above and beyond. If you want that, you have to put them first (leading by nature of your influence).

The United States Army has recognized this for years. It strives to instill these lessons into their leaders. For example, in the Creed of the Non-Commissioned Officer, we are reminded, “My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind—accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my Soldiers.” Elsewhere in that same pledge, we’re admonished to “not use my grade or position to attain pleasure, profit, or personal safety.”

Instead of focusing on self, a great leader’s focus is outward. Their priority is on the success of their organization, it’s mission and it’s vision. And, perhaps most importantly, they care deeply about developing and connecting with their people.

Leaders who put their organization’s achievements ahead of their own possess one of the key traits of what Jim Collins refers to as a Level 5 Leader. According to Collins, Level 5 leaders have “ambition first and foremost for the company and concern for its success rather than for one’s own riches and personal renown.

In his book, Good to Great, Collins demonstrates how every company that made the jump from good to great had a Level 5 Leader at the helm. In other words, your organization and your people are counting on you. You’re not just putting a lid on your own success. You’re capping theirs too.

Building the Foundation

Now here’s the real meat and potatoes. You don’t develop selflessness just by reading about it. In fact, it’s rather difficult to develop most altruistic qualities simply by hearing lectures about how useful, helpful, or even wonderful they are.

Instead, there are foundational principals, underlying relationships that must exist between an individual and their organization, their mission, and their team. And when these things are in proper alignment, qualities like selflessness are a natural by-product.

And that will be the topic of our next post. So stay tuned.

References

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Patrick Lencioni. 2008. The five temptations of a CEO a leadership fable. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3z4rjzv
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John C. Maxwell. 2000. Failing forward: turning mistakes into stepping-stones for success. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3zSUO7z
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James C. Collins. 2001. Good to great: why some companies make the leap--and others don’t. HarperBusiness, New York, NY. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3EJfH6c
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John C. Maxwell. 1998. The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: follow them and people will follow you. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tenn. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3yX69mR
Nicholas Cardot

U.S. Army Psychological Operations Sergeant with a passion for fitness, reading, mindfulness, and leading from a place of inner bravery.

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