Learning to Lead Selflessly

As a senior student in leadership positions in different organizations, characteristics of a true leader have been on my mind. Am I being the leader I need to be? Am I instilling in my “followers” what they need? Am I providing what education I can? Am I giving them good advice? Am I doing everything I can to be the best leader I can be?

Forbes will tell you that leadership requires honesty, delegation, communication, confidence, commitment, creativity, intuition, positive attitudes and the ability to inspire. The Huffington Post‘s list will repeat some of the same characteristics, with an added few: ability to listen, integrity, humility, empathy, inspiration and the ability to lead by example.

I’ve been both a leader and a follower. I’ve been led by both great and not-so-great leaders, and I’ve no-doubt been both a great and not-so-great leader. Leadership is absolutely a learned skill. Many times, leaders want to lead by example, but by leading by example, they do all the work. Other times, leaders want to delegate work then sit back and watch everyone else.

Leadership requires a keen balance: walking a thin line between leader, dictator and sole member. But I think all of these issues can be solved through one characteristic: selflessness.

Too many take the title of “leader” to build their resume or brown-nose their way to the top. Too many times their objective as a leader is not to help or serve their organization as a whole, but to help themselves as a part. I am absolutely at fault for this myself. I have taken a position thinking, “Wow, this is going to look great on my resume.” Leaders like to be easy to spot. These leaders are inauthentic. They often push out other members who are willing and wishing to get involved. They take glamorous positions: the ones that mean their name will be posted for all to see. They don’t work behind-the-scenes.

So how do we learn to be a selfless leader when we, as human beings, are inherently selfish? I think the Huffington Post hit the nail on the head. Humility.

Anyone who achieves success, big or small, should be celebrated. I am a believer in being proud of your accomplishments and letting others know, however being proud and being arrogant are two different things. Remember you, too, were once someone working your way from the ground up.

We all started at the bottom in one way or another. Other people taught us, mentored us and made us into the people we are today. We cannot by any circumstance say that we made it to a leadership position all by ourselves. We did not “pull ourselves up from our bootstraps” without any help. And that’s important to remember.

I’ve had three different opportunities in the past few months to go to events or be in leadership positions that I have turned down. One reason? I’ve been there before. Not that I couldn’t learn more by attending again, but I knew that if I went, I took a spot at a table that someone inexperienced would’ve valued more. I made contacts and loved the experience previously and was disappointed not to go again, but I didn’t want to take that opportunity from someone else.

I’ve also given up leadership positions. I already had a lot on my plate, so I didn’t want to commit to another position that wouldn’t have received an adequate amount of my time. I knew two other members that had less experience than me, but had expressed sincere excitement for the position. My resume is not full, but as a leader, we have to know when to step back and let someone else take on a new role. As some point in time, we have to know when to stop being the leader and just mentor (or perhaps become a follower again).

I’ve learned a lot from my leadership positions, but I know I learn a lot more from my followers than I do from myself. I also know that I learn a lot when I let someone else do the teaching every once in a while. It’s great to have a full resume, and it’s great to be in every organization and actively participating… but it’s also great when you give someone else the opportunities that you’ve been extended.

Some people are born with leadership abilities, but not every natural-born leader is instilled with humility and selflessness. In fact, I’d say those are learned skills that take a lifetime to perfect.


*Thank you Katie Gatti for the edits and support on this topic. Check out her blog “Blonde with a Blog“!