Self-serving leaders vs. Selfless leaders

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

by Saira Akbar

Self-serving style of leadership in short term can be beneficial for organizations.

Do I have evidence to back up this statement? Hardly. Google has lot on leadership but there is barely any data on self-serving leaders thriving in today’s economy.

Yet, paradox is, that in my 20 years of consulting business at least 60%, if not more, C-Suite executives I have come across are expert Self-serving Leaders.

Given that we live in an era of ‘short term mindset’ how could possibly be anything wrong with such a style? Given that millennial managers and their high sense of “entitlement" are now order of the day, and with Gen-Z just pressing behind in the queue, the case of self-serving leadership style becomes even more of a reality, and a highly complex debate.

So let’s try and understand who these Self-Serving Leaders are.

They comprise of three sections to their persona:

1) Behaviors of SELF-SERVING LEADERS which others see

To describe the behaviors, I borrow from Wiley’s 8 Dimensions of Leadership as shown below.

These are typical behaviors of leaders, even self-serving leaders can be any of the above. These people can be focused or deliberate. Risk takers or careful. Manipulative or passive. Humble or egoistic. Some wish to being in center of happenings, whilst others may be comfortable in their own space. Some like people and are emotional. Some like not to be involved with people or emotions. Some use gut-feel to make choices and some rely on logic. Some are spontaneous whilst others may be overly perfectionist. The list goes on and on, comprising of zillion types of played-out behaviors. This makes the case to detect self-serving leaders at the center of a personality even more complex.

2) Self-esteem levels of self-serving Leaders

Each of the above leadership dimensions can be further sliced by their levels of self-esteem. If the above leadership dimensions (let’s take Pioneer for instance) has high self-esteem, they will use their leadership dimensions to self-serve with dynamism and elegance. Their conviction in their cause, right or wrong, is strong and they work towards getting what they want. The need to prove a point is least, so they may go undetected on the radar as a self-serving leader. On other hand, a Pioneer style with low self-esteem, may use aggression to get their way and be very singular in their approach. The need to prove a point is high so sometimes you can see them as self-serving leaders from miles.

3) Values of Self-serving Leaders

The key filter which truly separates a self-serving leader from the opposite, a Selfless Leader, is their value system. What they will live or die for? What makes them most unhappy or most happy? What propels them into action, etc.

I looked up the definition of self-serving and felt the definition itself is apt to describe the values of a self-serving leader:

  1. “Preoccupied with one's own interests, often disregarding the truth or the interests, well-being, etc., of others.

  2. Serving others to further one's own selfish interests."

What’s the benefit of being self-serving? It gives one control over people and environment. Self-serving leaders are vested in controlling the outcomes. An interesting write up by a renowned speaker Stephen Shapiro on being ‘self-centered’, sums it up well:

"...instead of centering your life on someone or something that may not be around as long as you, maybe you should try being self-centered. This gives you some level of stability in an unpredictable world. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition – “independent of outside force or influence” – supports this notion…"

The company benefits in short term too. Leaders who tend to self-promote tend to create an external brand for the self and their organization. These leaders are shiny and even charismatic. For centuries, we have been fed stories and fables about knights in shiny armor and we psychologically get attracted to such personalities. In short term these knights or self-serving leaders gleam over the deeper motivators for their action, and even the company results. They call this positive manipulation.

However, in long run, they end up creating disengaged and full of cynicism teams, which simply destroys moral and steals opportunities, from the person, the teams and the company.

SELF-SERVING LEADERS Case 1 - Director HR about to retire

Recently, I happen to work with a senior HR director of an industrial company. Let’s just call him Bob. Bob is suave, probably an Affirming Leader on the Wiley 8 Dimensions of Leadership wheel. He definitely has some low self-esteem issues, as he does not like to take front stage to voice his inner thoughts. Acknowledges the challenges in current HR systems with remorse and helplessness. Wants to do band-aid work in terms of fixing these. Curious, I pressed on: “It’s great to see that you recognize these challenges. Then why would you not want to fix them at the core? Why a "band-aid" approach?”

He smiled, sighed deeply, and said (his response shocked me), “Saira, I retire in next couple of years. Why rock the boat? I have already achieved a lot in last 10 years. This is the time for me to take it easy, clock in my final earnings and gratuity. I am sure whoever replaces me will have plenty of time to fix these issues”. He said all this in front of many of his direct reports. Talk about being blatantly self-serving!

So I left Bob to his devices and he continues to bob on the surface.

SELF-SERVING LEADERS Case 2 - C-Suite Executive

A Gen-Y, younger than most, C-Executive of a communications company recently refused to undertake any ‘people development’ initiatives. Let’s call her Tina. Tina is sharp, self-promoting, charismatic, dynamic, action oriented, Energizing Leader on the Wiley 8 Dimensions of Leadership wheel. Her rational not to delve into an intervention, which would bring about a mind shift change is, “I don’t want to rock our current management, as their experience is priceless, and there is nothing one can do to replace experience”.

Inspiring? Not quite.

Later on, I found out that Tina's current direct reports had been there for over 20 years. Being a collective resistant force, they were not open to change, happy with how the current status quo of processes and systems gives them autonomy over others. Tina, on the other hand, has been with the company for 3 years only. Most likely given her personality, the moment a good or better opportunity comes her way, she will move on. So why make deep incisions! After all she can’t afford to shake things up and lose the cushy high-profile job she has.

I never got to work with Tina. Our values did not match.

Do We Need Selfless Leaders?

So who are the opposite of self-serving leaders? Meet the Selfless Leaders. The Wiley 8 Dimensions of Leadership wheel will be the same as above for them also, but what sets them apart is:

  • Authenticity. What you see is what you get from them

  • Humility. Don’t consider them weak though

  • Not any knights in shiny armors. Simple people with simple habits.

  • They lead by example not just at work, they are the same person at home in their roles as parent, friend, community giver etc.

  • Somewhat spiritual, they tend to be vested in the process to success rather than the outcome. The outcome in their minds cannot be controlled, but the process to get to a goal can be

  • Being almost oblivious of the ‘self’, they are unaware of their own attractiveness

  • They may have a leadership position without having a title or official role

  • They have followers both at work and personal life without actually seeking followers

  • They are passionate about converting the followers into leaders

  • They don’t center around what they want, they center around what's good for the company, people or the cause in the long run, and not in short run.

  • They create legacies

All this makes them courageous and a force of their own kind.

If any of you ever had the pleasure of reading Jim Collin’s Good to Great, our selfless heroes are well described here. Collins uses the “Window and Mirror Model” to describe them. These people are hard on themselves. Every time there is a success story, they look outside the ‘window' and say it’s their people who are responsible for the success and when things go wrong they look in the ‘mirror' and will take responsibility.

High self-esteem and strong value system is what separates the selfless from the self-serving

Selfless leaders usually have high self-esteem, and hence need to prove a point is almost nonexistent.

Excitingly, what separates them from self-serving leaders are their value based leadership. Simply put they are driven by deep rooted values and conviction. Here are some fundamentals of their value system:

Being authentic and leading by example comes naturally to them. This makes them powerful and inspirational, yet they are not vested in any self-adulation. There are many examples of selfless leaders which have come and gone… However, here is an irony: when I looked around in my immediate circle of influence to seek some role models of selfless leaders, I found it a difficult task. Most role models that I could identify, actually are not C-Suite executives. They are either junior level executives, or working in non-corporate environment such as being a janitor, security or healthcare, etc. Surely there has to be, even if few, selfless leaders at C-Suite level!

This new predicament got me to question:

  • Do we lose our selflessness as we grow in our careers?

  • Do we become jaded and give up our values as our jobs or roles evolve?

  • The system gets to us finally?

  • The title and position steels us of what we were?

  • Are we helpless in face of bad leadership?

So why do leaders get overpowered with their environment? Are they not leaders in the first place because they are not supposed to lose their way?

As one retail banker once mourned to me, whilst pointing towards himself, “Saira look at me, look at me. I swear, I was not this, till I joined this bank. This is what the organization has made me into.”

Ah, well. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But my conviction is that there will always be a selfless leader, a hero, who will rise and save the humanity.

Here are two such cases. One from the corridors of my own career, and another from far away lands of Africa. Both continue to being selfless. Both continue to making a difference.


My first case is of Charles (real name :) )

Charles was my diagonal boss… I did not have a reporting line as such to him, however, he influenced me purely by his selfless leadership style. Being ex-military person, Charles spoke in a crisp, stern, yet warm tones. His open, laughing, humble personality was inspiring and charismatic for a young, shy, introvert, trainer like me, who at that time was lost in a maze of male colleagues and rigid organizational bureaucracy.

Almost immediately after joining the company, he took a liking to me, and without really saying it out loud, adopted me, shaped me, and mentored me. I am not sure if he even knew he was doing that, because he just did the same for others too. With little benefit to himself, except, deep satisfaction in shaping young minds, he would patiently dole out unlimited advice, guidance, help us think through corporate politicking, convert challenges into lessons and so on.

There were many lessons I learned just by watching, talking, and debating with Charles. Some gold nuggets of his lessons, which, to this day, I continue to share with others are:

  • Bravo bonus (a celebratory clap) for others as much you can.

  • Girl be ready to throw in your towel if you believe in something. No matter what, don’t give up, in face of any might, as long as it’s for the right reason.

  • Once pointing towards, his lovely home’s picture, he said, “Saira when things go wrong, this is where I go. Never forget where you are rooted. It’s family. It’s home”

  • What do you think is the right thing to do? Don’t ever shake if you are doing the right thing. Don’t doubt. Doubt will stop you.

  • Don’t cry, find a learning-point in this bad situation, get up, dust yourself, and try again. Don’t just sit there.

  • Don’t regret your decisions later. Whatever you decide today is the right decision today. There are no guarantees in life.

  • Once he said, dream, it’s important to dream. Then he asked me what my dream was, and I said shyly, I wish I had my own company. I can easily say that was the start of a blueprint in my mind of my company.

Now you may think that Charles probably was a good mentor and that’s that. On the contrary, he came into the organization, stood firmly, and consistently for all that was wrong, all that needed fixing. In the process, he actually made lot of enemies, at times at expense of himself. He was and remains an ideas man. KISS: Keep it simple stupid, remains important to him. Rocking a boat was not a challenge, rather a start of a fresh journey. Bureaucracy remains an idiot he laughs and rejects to this day.

Interestingly even in his personal life he consistently remains an engaging selfless husband, a doting dad, and a grandfather. Charles at work and Charles at home, are surprisingly the same person.


I first came across this story many years ago whilst attending a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Workshop. It’s the true story of Stone Kyambadde who lives in an obscure village in Uganda. Stone’s story is full of ‘leading by example’ scenes set in his poor community as well as in his personal life. Watch him (click on image) and be your own judge:

Final Word

I am realistic enough to accept that we cannot change the world from SELF-SERVING LEADERS to SELFLESS LEADERS. But we all can create islands of success. We all can dream:

— imagine if right at grassroots level, in schools, colleges, homes, whilst parenting, our children were taught about the magic of values.

— imagine if we were vested in building character and not just skills in our children, teams and communities

— imagine a world immune to discrimination and self-servitude

— imagine a world full of collaboration, healthy competition, and zero wars.

— imagine a world not ruled, but led by SELFLESS LEADERS.


Before I go, do think of this question:

What kind of a leader are you: SELF-SERVING or a SELFLESS?

I don’t need an answer, but reflecting on this question within the deep confines of your own private thoughts, just might turn the destiny of your people and in turn the business direction of your company.

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