One of America’s most well-known and controversial chief executives, Jack Welch, said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Welch was a hard leader to put in one category. Some celebrated how he empowered lower-echelon leaders who were more familiar with front-line operations, while others didn’t approve of his culture of competition, goading executives into arguing with one another.
Welch passed away in March as our world braced for the unknowable. It’s interesting to me that a leader who was characterized as “combative and blunt” was also someone quoted for having this altruistic thought about supporting another’s journey. There was a time in my life when I associated selflessness exclusively with volunteering. But as I began to grow as a professional and become a seasoned leader, I realized selflessness had a critical place in work and life.
Bestselling author and speaker John O’Leary recently pointed out that the first four words in one of the bestselling books of all time are “It’s not about you.” It was a rush to see O’Leary highlight Rick Warren’s words from The Purpose Driven Life because these words have become a mantra within my own leadership style. More specifically, I like to think that leadership is not about you but about the transformative influence you can have on those around you. It’s about mentally stepping outside of your own sphere and recognizing how you can empower others.
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Consider everyday practices where a selfless approach cultivates winning outcomes. For instance, securing buy-in on a new company direction or project is something leaders often find themselves doing on a regular basis with boards, clients, or employees. Researchers Laura Huang and Ryan Yu learned from sixty leaders they studied that one of the three most common strategies for changing someone else’s opinion is to take the focus off yourself. Instead, leaders must “invest time in personally learning about and building rapport” with the person or people whose opinions they seek to change.
Not surprisingly, managing people is another arena where altruism is essential. Bersin research shows that the lowest-performing companies are 50 percent more likely to say their performance process was focused on compensation and promotion rather than the growth of their employees. Model companies like Patagonia have produced data proving that employees who are encouraged to check in more regularly with their managers are statistically higher performers. So leaders who create a selfless environment where people can and do align with them is critical for success.
James Keller said, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” The not-so-secret irony of selflessness is that it’s personally fulfilling. When you commit to helping others around you, there’s a chemical reaction in the brain—more commonly referred to as a “helper’s high.” Your brain releases endorphins when you’ve helped someone. What’s more, as I focused on the positive influence I had on others and their personal performance, my working relationships flourished, rapport improved, and trust formed more easily. Whether you’re a Jack Welch or the furthest thing from him, experience shows that every leader should light a candle.