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Selflessness: The hallmark of great leadership

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(1) Biola Alabi, CEO, Biola Alabi Media
(2)Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Co-founder, Flutterwave
(3) Ademola Adeyemi-Bero, CEO, First E&P
(4) Mr Adebisi Shonubi, MD, NIBSS
(5) Bolaji Edu, CEO, Broll

Aristotle described courage as the mother of all virtues. While a disputation of the submission of one of the most developed minds the world has ever known is beyond contemplation, the indisputable fact is that the mother of courage is selflessness. Therefore, if courage is the mother of all virtues, selflessness is their grandmother.

Selflessness is putting others first and placing their need above yours. It is realizing that life is not about labouring to meet your needs and preferences, but a task to look out for others and help them to actualize their expectations and aspirations. Selflessness is not being consumed by your rights but being propelled by what is right for others. A selfish leader occupies the centre of his world, but not a selfless one. A selfless leader puts others at the centre of his world not because he expects anything from them by so doing but because he wants the best for them.

The hallmark of great leadership is selflessness. Selflessness propelled Nelson Mandela to the global stage, made Dr Martin Luther King Jr. an unforgettable icon, turned George Washington into an exemplar, made Mahatma Gandhi a hero, elevated Mother Theresa into sainthood and made Obafemi Awolowo a primus inter pares. No great thing has ever been achieved without selflessness.

On the contrary, selfishness is the albatross of leadership greatness. Leadership slide begins with selfishness. When a leader puts his needs and desires above the quests and aspirations of others, he embarks on a journey whose destination is destruction because rather than measure success by the satisfaction of others, he gauges it by his personal fulfillment.

Selflessness is the fountain of all virtues. No one can be courageous without being fully selfless; neither can anyone be candid without being selfless. Truthfulness, justice, charity, temperance and love will be mere abstract concepts without selflessness.

Need for selflessness in leadership

Contrary to the belief of many, leadership is less about the leader and more about those he leads. Very few leaders have this understanding and they are the ones who make it to greatness. Once a leader comes to terms with the fact that leadership is not about him, he becomes selfless and does what is right for his organization and the people. The major requirement for great leadership is selflessness. Leaders will fail to make right decisions that would propel their organizations towards the realization of their goals and vision if they are unable to wean themselves off selfishness. A selfless leader will be rich in courage, candour and love. With courage, he will dare the unimaginable and take risks that can improve the lot of the organization. With candour, he will cut to size the untouchable, call the bluff of hostage takers and remove all barriers to progress. With love, he helps the people to get better and have their back when the tide runs contrary to them. With these three, there is no obstacle that can stop the acceleration of the organization to its predetermined destination.

Selflessness translates leaders from mortality to immortality. Great leaders are celebrated even in death because while they lived, they made those they led and their wellbeing the centre of their leadership and consequently etched themselves in the minds and hearts of the people. So, despite being dead, they remain alive in the minds of the people.


Howard Behar’s transformation of Starbucks

When Howard Behar joined Starbucks in 1989 as Vice President (Sales and Operations), the company had just 28 stores. By the time he was named CEO in 1995, six years later, he had grown the retail business to over 400 stores. In 1996, he opened the first Starbucks store in Tokyo. The spread continued across Asia, Middle East and Europe. By the time he retired in 2003, Starbucks had over 15,000 outlets across the globe.

According to Behar, the company was able to do so well under him because he put the people first, served them, treated them as human beings and made their welfare his priority. He was not gauging the success of his tenure by what the business was able to accomplish under him but by what the people he superintended over were able to achieve; their personal successes and victories. To show his emphasis on putting his people before the business, he came up with the catch phrase. “We aren’t in the coffee business serving people; we are in the people business serving coffee.” He put serving the people above serving coffee. He opined that “There is no conflict between treating your people with respect and dignity and making a profit.”

As a result of the leader’s selflessness, the people were willing to go out on a limb for him. They were willing to do anything to make the company better. They could go to any length to ensure that the company surpassed its target. Thus, quarter after quarter, year after year, the company posted heartwarming results.

Behar got his priority right; hence he was able to build a sustainable business.


How leaders demonstrate selflessness

Leaders demonstrate selflessness through the following ways.


They serve others

Most leaders want to be served. Many people equate leadership with churning out orders and being served by others. But that is not leadership. Leadership is creating value for others, helping them to achieve their desires and making their lives meaningful. Selfless leaders don’t take advantage of people; they create opportunities for them. Leaders are ladders which others climb to get their desires.

Leaders serve others by giving the best of themselves; they give their time, talent and treasures. They never hold back. They mentor, mind, mould and give others wings to fly. They never stop until those they lead achieve their dreams.

The heart of leadership is service; leadership that is devoid of service is void.

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They help others maximize potential

Great leaders know that it is their duty to help those they lead realize their full potential. In Africa, dreams die fast, talents are routinely wasted and potentialities are usually not fully realized because the generality of the people operate in a terribly hostile environment. The African environment stifles creativity and inhibits ability. As a result, the people operate below their installed capacity. So, one of the functions of a leader is to identify the factors that impede people’s ability to be their best and find ways to remove such. Once that is done, the next thing is for the leader to provide training opportunities which will enable them to get better. It is quite unfortunate that in Nigeria and many developing countries, training is treated as a cost. But in the real sense, training is an investment and should be deemed as such. Nobody can fully utilize his potential without being adequately trained. It is for this reason that the best athletes in the world still subject themselves to the training of coaches. After exposing them to training, the leader must also create opportunities for the people to express their ability and potentialities. It is by so doing that the people are able to fully optimize their potential.

Great leaders don’t multiply followers; they reproduce more leaders by bringing out the best in their followers.


They transfer credit, take blame

For the selfish leader, he must be the focus of all activities. Consequently, he is unwilling to give credit to others for the great things they do. Rather than give credit, he appropriates it. He claims credit for what he did not do and is quick to blame others for the wrong he did.

To beat this trap, a leader must prime himself to give credit to others even for what he did. When his group records an outstanding performance and everybody sings his praise, he gives the credit to his team, saying his people made the feat possible. When there is a problem, he does not hang his people; instead he is willing to take the bullet for them. Selfless leadership begins when a leader is willing to share credits with others and he is not averse to taking the blame when things go awry.


Have their back

Employees can do anything for their organizations once they are convinced that their CEOs have their back. Employees are encouraged to take risks for their organizations if they know that they will be protected should things run contrary to expectations. What leadership demands from the followers most of the time is total commitment. But commitment does not happen in a vacuum. When employees know that the CEO cares for them, it inspires commitment in them. When leaders make it abundantly clear that they will protect their subordinates’ interest even beyond the call of duty, what they earn in return is the total commitment of such subordinates. One thing about commitment is that it cannot be legislated; it is a response to the leader’s attitude to others. A leader that values his people and cares for them will inspire commitment from them with ease. On the other hand, when a leader does not show much concern about his team mates, it will be difficult to inspire commitment. The best the leader can hope to get from them is compliance. The difference is that while the committed are willing to go the extra mile, the compliant are not willing to go beyond the call of duty. While the committed own the task, the compliant do not. They do not see the task as their own but the leader’s. So, they are not bothered by its success or failure.


They make tough demand on their subordinates

Selflessness is not synonymous with spinelessness. As a matter of fact, many selfless leaders are quite steely and make tough demands on their subordinates. The reason for this is that leaders know that to help the people, the company has to be a going concern. So, while he cares for the people, he does not neglect the company. He does not entertain anything less than the best from the employees. He drives them hard and ensures they give nothing short of their best. He does not take any excuse for non-performance. To him, mediocrity is sacrilege just as suboptimal performance, and he brings the full weight of the organization against anyone who is found wanting. Because he is selfless, he is able to ensure that neither the organization nor the people get shortchanged by the other. He works for the best interests of all parties.


They take risk for the organization

Leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions that put them in difficult situations. Nelson Mandela did not have to spend 27 years behind the bars but he chose to because of his people. If he had agreed to the terms given him to secure his release from prison, the victory over apartheid regime would have been delayed. So, he had to trade away his freedom to quicken the people’s liberty.


Stella Adadevoh’s risk for Nigeria

Nigeria was at the verge of becoming an Ebola-infested country when a Liberian diplomat, Patrick Sawyer, arrived Lagos in July 2014 en route Calabar to attend a conference. On getting to Nigeria, Sawyer complained of malaria, so he was taken to the First Consultants Hospital in Lagos by officials of the Liberian Embassy. But the doctor on duty that day, Stella Adadevoh, carried out a series of tests which revealed that Sawyer had Ebola. When told of the outcome of the tests, Sawyer would have none of it, and asked to be released to continue his journey to Calabar. Even the Liberian Ambassador also weighed in, urging the hospital to let go of Sawyer but Dr Stella Adadevoh insisted that, “for the greater public good” she would not release him.

Despite the non-availability of protective equipment, Adadevoh created a wooden barricade outside Sawyer’s door, thus limiting his interaction with other patients. As a consequence of her courage and insistence on curtailing the movement of Sawyer, it was easy for the government to trace all the 20 Ebola cases in the country to a single path of transmission originating from Sawyer. Although, Dr Adadevoh and three of her colleagues contracted Ebola in their bid to restrain Sawyer from spreading the virus and eventually died, their selfless service saved the country from what was an imminent Ebola outbreak.


Last line

Those who give their all to others are always held in awe by others.

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