As leaders, we often feel overwhelmed by competing priorities, heavy workloads and demands from senior management. Unfortunately, this combination of factors can cause leaders to take a selfish view of the world.
The self serving leader tends to focus on their own needs and challenges more than those of their team. Instead of aiming to support and develop their teams, their mindset turns to one of self-interest and self-preservation.
The Major Casualty of the Self Serving Leader: Reputation
As with many aspects of life, being a self serving leader is not black and white. It’s easy to believe that some leaders are just selfish, and others aren’t.
However, most of us lie somewhere on the self serving spectrum, depending on what’s happening at that moment. If you’re focusing on an important deadline, it stands to reason that you might focus on achieving that goal instead of focusing on your team like you normally would.
The real issue arises when self-interest becomes the normal way of operating. Team members and colleagues will forgive a leader who is occasionally absent because they need to get something done.
Over time, self serving leaders will damage their credibility and reputation by failing to focus on the people that are the reason for their position in the first place: their team members.
It is important to note that being too focused on serving others can be a bad thing too. As a leader, you also have needs that must be met, and putting yourself last all the time does not help.
What You Do Matters, but so Does How You Do It
It’s good to get things done, but not at the expense of others. The whole concept of teams and organisations is that people are meant to work together to achieve an outcome, because they can’t do it alone.
The best leaders I’ve worked with are those that get results the right way. It’s not always what you do, but also how you do it.
Instead of leaving a trail of destruction behind them as they strive to meet their objectives, these leaders bring their people along on the journey, treat people with respect and build a reputation as being somebody who people want to work for.
The questions to ask yourself are:
“How do I want people to talk about me when I’m not in the room?”
“What legacy am I leaving?”
“What behaviours am I role-modelling for my team?”
Maybe He’s Born With It?
In general, I feel that most leaders are trying to do the right thing, leading with integrity and supporting their people.
Falling into self serving leadership behaviours can happen when the pressure mounts and workplace conditions initiate a change in behaviour that isn’t necessarily intentional.
Yes, there will always be the political animals, the power players and the empire builders. However, I think more common reasons for self serving leadership are a result of:
- Fear: Leaders who are scared of being bullied, fired or failing are likely to take a “me first” approach
- Insecurity: Insecure leaders feel threatened by others, and start to behave in ways that protect themselves from harm
- Uncertainty: When leaders don’t know what’s going to happen next, uncertainty can see them positioning themselves to stay out of harms way
- Overwhelm: Leaders who are struggling with their workload may fail to take time for the positive actions they used to focus on.
The point is, we can find self serving behaviour even in leaders with the best of intentions. In the next section, we’ll look at some symptoms of self serving leadership and how to address them.
Self Serving Leader Symptom #1: Being Absent
Absent leaders are the ones who are never available for their teams. Hardly ever able to be found in their normal work location, they are always out and about in meetings or otherwise engaged. Absent leaders also reschedule the meetings with their teams, for other “more important” ones.
Being absent also includes failing to pay attention. Perhaps you’re present in body, but your mind is elsewhere.
Many leaders are flooded by emails and endless notifications from collaboration tools, in addition to the beeps and buzzing of their mobile phones. This starts to become a problem when it distracts you from being present in conversations with your team.
Instead, you focus on what your boss wants or what’s happening in your next meeting. This is a common problem and exactly the reason why I use paper notebooks to write meeting notes.
When I’m meeting with my team members, I don’t want to be distracted by emails or other electronic updates. Unfortunately, when you focus on your distractions instead of your people, you’re saying “What you have to say isn’t really important”.
How to Be More Present for Your Team
It’s easy to be absent and fail to focus on your people. To stop this, try the following:
- Reduce distractions: Where possible, don’t use your computer in meetings. Put your phone face down and turn your smart watch notifications off – this is a new one that I recently introduced to my routine!
- Book time to be available: If you’re super busy, book “team time” to be available for your people. Make sure they know where and when to find you. Stick to the schedule, and don’t let others book meetings over the top.
- Stick to your meetings: Stop rescheduling your 1:1 meetings with your team members. These are a valuable support mechanism where you can keep in touch with your teams.
- Use different forums to meet: Head out to a cafe for a breakfast meeting, or have a casual drink after work. Sometimes you can adjust your normal meeting schedule to be available if your team members are struggling to see you.
Related: The Power of Paying Attention.
Symptom #2: Too Many Surprises, Not Enough Communication
When situations change, it’s nice to be able to keep your team informed. People like to be aware of what’s happening in their environment.
Self serving leaders tend to withhold information, being more interested in their own needs than their teams.
This can cause frustration, isolation and a loss of connection with your team.
Poor communication can also cause rework, when your team accidentally finds out that what they were working on is no longer required or needs a major adjustment.
Since self serving leaders are focused inward instead of outwards, communication is often an aspect that suffers.
How to Communicate to Reduce Surprises and Raise Awareness
Communication needs to be more intentional and systematic, instead of just when you remember it. Try the following:
- Send a regular update: Provide an update to your team about relevant events and happenings within your workplace. Set a reminder in your calendar so that you don’t forget.
- Build communication into your workflow: If you’re working on something with your team, discuss how you will keep each other informed. Maybe it’s a daily stand-up meeting or a coffee chat. Whatever it is, make it part of the plan, not just an afterthought.
- Communicate with effort and intention: Don’t just forward emails to your team with reckless abandon. This isn’t communicating, this is spam. Spend the time to be concise and summarise information so that you don’t overwhelm everyone. Failing to be concise often means your team will start to ignore your updates because they contain little value!
Self Serving Leader Symptom #3: Disregarding Feedback and Input
One of the best ways to build team spirit is to ask for input from team members. Gone are the days where leaders are meant to know everything. In our fast-changing world, this is impossible!
Good teams are comprised of a diverse range of people with different skillsets and backgrounds.
Thoughtful leaders can use this to their advantage, because everyone brings a different perspective that can create a better outcome than one opinion alone.
On the other hand, self serving leaders tend to avoid asking for team input, or they simply ignore it and go their own way. Often the reason for doing this is because it’s “faster” to just make all the decisions yourself.
While it does feel quicker to make your own decisions without consultation, this is a recipe for disaster.
Firstly, it shows a lack of respect for your people and their expertise. But it also leaves you open to trouble down the track, when something hits you that you didn’t consider.
How to Involve Your Team In Decisions and Solutions
Taking input from your team can feel scary. After all, you need to show that you know what you’re doing… you can’t just get your team to do everything. You’re the boss!
But there is a difference between consulting and just doing everything your team wants. To involve your team successfully, try the following:
- Ask for input: It sounds obvious, but you should explicitly ask for feedback and input into appropriate aspects of the team and the work. Some leaders think their team knows they can make suggestions, but it’s easier for people when you actually ask for it.
- Cater for differences: Not everyone shares their opinions openly. Your quiet achievers might not be comfortable in front of a large group. Think of different ways to get the feedback you need.
- Explain the “why”: If you can’t take onboard somebody’s suggestion, explain why. Otherwise it looks like you’re just going your own way, without really caring what people think.
- Set a timeframe: If you have a deadline (who doesn’t?), set a time limit for input from the team. Don’t just leave it open-ended. Make it clear that you wan input, but that you need it by a certain date.
- Actually use the input and give credit: It’s good to ask, but only if you actually use the feedback you get and then give your people the credit for it. You won’t be able to use everybody’s ideas. However, it’s important to incorporate team ideas to show that you really do want input.
It’s easy to fall into self serving leadership behaviour sometimes, even when it’s not the way you normally operate.
Watch out for the symptoms of the self serving leader and see how you can start focusing on the needs of your team, rather than just your own.