It’s Not About You

Self-centered leaders find it difficult to get outside of themselves and see serving others as the primary mission.  They are fulfilled by outward signs of success such as admiration, attention, power, money, and fame. On the other hand, servant leaders like Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), Ray Anderson (Interface Carpet), and Hamdi Ulukaya (Chobani Yogurt) clearly understand their purpose as vessels put on earth at this time to make a significant impact in the lives of their followers, organizations, and communities.  They are motivated by honoring their values and fulfilling their destinies.

Self-centered leaders seem to carry an emptiness in their soul that requires external validation and recognition.  To use an Asian metaphor – the “door knob” to their soul is activated from the outside.  Consequently, they resemble a weather vane that spins with the direction of the wind and is at the will of external forces.  When they get good news, they get high.  They are flooded with an adrenaline-like rush and often commence a victory lap with adoring fans lining the course.  On the other hand, when the universe throws challenges and obstacles in their way, they exhibit symptoms like temper, angst, blame, revenge, passive aggression, and at times, depression.  Since their inspiration and motivation is fed externally, they have less control over their lives.  Leaders like Bernie Madoff, Ferdinand Piëch (Volkswagen), John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) and Ken Lay (Enron) attempt to feed their souls with rewards that are temporal, cyclical, unpredictable, and hallucinatory.  Money, fame, beauty, external recognition, power mongering, and self-seeking competition feed the ego and therefore require external nourishment. These leaders are often not in control of the uninvited guests that turn the external door knob to affect their lives, their happiness, and their fulfillment.  Others find it difficult to reach and connect with them.  They seem to be in their own bubble and often connect with humanity at a superficial level.

Servant leaders have a clear sense of values that guide their thoughts, feelings, and actions.  They choose the environments and people to let in.  Their door knob is from the inside, and they have the lock.  Emails, meetings, conversations, and external events are processed through their moral compass.  They don’t gyrate up and down as much.  They carry themselves authentically and consistently, irrespective of the rank and standing of their audience.  They have the ability to connect at a human level with all of their constituencies and accept their mission on earth with humility, curiosity, and authenticity.  Servant leaders often rely as much on their intuition as they do on their intellect.  No logic or contemporary business thinking would have allowed a self-centered leader to invest in electric powered cars, or a privately-owned company with a mission to invest in outer space travel. Elon Musk committed himself to these visions.  However, Musk is driven by his inner compass and not contemporary thinking.  Similarly, an immigrant Turk whose father was a shepherd and yogurt maker relied on his values to put everything he had into buying a bankrupt factory from Kraft foods, and turn it into the flagship for a global enterprise that today dominates the U.S. yogurt market. Hamdi Ulukaya has not only transformed the yogurt market and taste in the U.S., but he is also fulfilling his value of helping disenfranchised Americans and immigrant dreamers seeking better lives for their families.  He has provided hardworking, honest, and honorable people with employment, hope, and achievement, so they can hold up their heads in front of their families and role model good citizenship to their children.  These leaders often make a significant impact not only in their own organizations but also in the broader societies in which they live.  They understand their calling and the privileged position they have been placed in for a defined period of time to achieve their destiny.

I have witnessed self-centered leaders gain insights into the futility of honoring their ego instead of their values and calling.  Some have leveraged these experiences to evolve into servant leaders who are today making an impact on the lives of others and making the world a better place.  These leaders opted to work hard and to realize their unique genius and calling. With support from others, these leaders had the persistence to ultimately forge through setbacks, and become a true light for others beyond themselves.


Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How do you see your leadership style? Where are you in the self-centered to servant range?
  2. How has that worked for you?
  3. What would you change? What would you keep?





About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to It’s Not About You

  1. Kathi Love says:

    I am inspired by your writing Kaveh. Thank you for helping me to think deeper about important issues. Kathi

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