Leadership: It’s Not About You

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”
Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher

Throughout much of John Kennedy’s political career, there was a lot of talk about whether or not his father Joe “bought” some of his son’s electoral victories. But John was keen enough to turn the scandal into a joke.

When John was asked about this rumor at a press conference, John answered by pulling a telegram out of his pocket that he had just received from his father. It read, “Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

The press corps laughed and we all laugh today. But whether or not old Joe Kennedy bought elections brings up an extremely important point about leadership. And that is … leadership should never be about me … and my power … and my perks. Leadership should always be about other people.

And yet, many people don’t get it. Just watch the news and look at almost any politician and you’ll see most of their comments and actions are all about me, me, me. Making ME look good and giving ME more power.

The same is true in many work situations. I frequently hear people talk about how much they would like to get a promotion. When I ask them why they want a promotion, they’ll invariably talk about the higher pay and better benefits they’re going to get for themselves. Very little is mentioned about the difference they want to make in the lives of others.

Unfortunately, those people don’t seem to get it either. Leadership is not about me; it’s all about YOU.

Pat Johnson, a counselor for the West Fargo Schools, had that concept reinforced for her. She said, “I’ve attended seminars for years, but I have never experienced anything like your JOURNEY TO THE EXTRAORDINARY program. All the other seminar leaders seem to be talking in ‘nice, theoretical generalities.’ But you gave me things I can actually do to handle specific problems and people at work and at home. Your leadership strategies are so amazingly effective!”

Of course I agree with her. I wrote the course. I encourage you to read more about the “Journey to the Extraordinary.”

I’ve discovered that there are at least five things that great, moral, ethical, effective leaders do to make sure the focus stays on other people.

1. Great leaders are willing to sacrifice for the good of others.

After the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a convincing election victory in 1990, the ruling dictators imprisoned her for 15 years, trying to stop her democratic reforms from getting to the people. But Aung San Suu Kyi endured all those years of physical hardship and emotional abuse because she knew that true leadership was not about her comfort. The result? Today she sits in the Myanmar parliament, holds the Nobel Peace Prize, and is a strong advocate for all her people.

2. Great leaders are humble enough to learn from others.

Great leaders know that school is never out; there’s always more to learn. And great leaders know that whatever they do, they can always do better. They’re not perfect and don’t pretend to be perfect.

By contrast, bad leaders pretend to know it all, even when it’s obvious that they don’t. They suffer from the strange disease of mega-arrogance. You know … it’s the kind of disease that makes everyone sick except the person who has it.

Remember the best leaders learn from others. Before I conducted a seminar in South Africa, I learned from my South African hosts that my audience would be more willing to listen to what I had to say if I was first willing to serve. So I spent three days with the program organizers helping to clean, scrub, and paint the place where I would speak … before I spoke … and the audience response was overwhelming.

3. Great leaders tell the truth.

As my Australian colleague John Milne puts it, “A great leader tells it like it is. No sugar coating, no blame shifting, no excuses!”

Great leaders know that one of the surest ways to show respect for others is to tell the truth, no matter how it makes the leader look. Great leaders share the difficult realities, the misguided decisions, and temporary setbacks.

When a leader shares anything less than the truth, it’s a clear indication that he’s more concerned about himself and his image and his power than anything else. He’s saying, in effect, “It’s all about ME.” But when a leader shares the truth, the whole truth, he’s saying that YOU matter.

4. Great leaders grow and release their people.

Top-notch individuals are hard to replace. So it makes perfect sense that leaders would want to do whatever they could to hold on to those people.

On the other hand, it’s a very selfish strategy often motivated by the fact that leaders want to keep whoever makes them look good. Remember, poor leaders believe it’s all about ME.

In the end, this is a lose-lose strategy. You risk losing the trust of employees who begin to see you as more concerned about your career than theirs. And the word gets out.

Be a great leader instead. Be an advocate for rather than a barrier to your people’s success. Develop a reputation as a people developer and you will attract the best employees possible.

Of course, some people ask me, “What if I train my people and they leave?” I respond, “What if you don’t train your people and they stay?”

5. Great leaders focus more on their character than their image.

Poor leaders make decisions on how well it will “play” with their audiences … whether it be a staff of five people or a nation of 500 million. Poor leaders are even willing to do things that may be popular in the short term, even if it hurts their people in the long run. After all, it’s all about ME and my image.

That’s a very dangerous strategy. As the French proverb states, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” And some leaders only have one idea … what will make ME look good now.

By contrast, good leaders focus on doing what’s right for their people. That’s character, rather than popularity.

That’s what President Franklin Roosevelt did. Even though he was intensely criticized for how he handled the Great Depression and World War II, he exhibited courage, toughness, and perseverance so he could keep on doing what he believed was the rig
ht thing to do.

It’s also what Winston Churchill did. Even though historians today will say his actions prevented all of Western civilization from falling into the hands of the Nazis, his own people refused to re-elect him after the war. Churchill did what was right although it wasn’t necessarily appreciated at the time.


When you are leading people, what are you focused on? On what’s in it for me? Or what’s in it for them?