selfless leadership

The Self-Aware Leader

I had a mentor and a long time seminary professor by the name of Marcus Smucker who took issue with the word selfless. He thought it an inappropriate word for a Christian to use. Actually, it was not so much the word that troubled him as it was how the word was deployed.

The distinction Marcus wanted us to make was that there is a difference between not knowing who you are and extensive self-examination. Using selflessness as an excuse to never consider who you are at all opens the door to self-abuse, abuse at the hands of others, and worse, twisting others around abusive demands. Marcus had met and worked with scores of people caught up in this type of abuse, often using “selflessness” as a way to spiritualize the harm they were enabling. They saw it as a virtue rather than the toxic behavior that it was.

Extensive self-examination does not mean self-centeredness. Rather, it is a deep pilgrimage into understanding one’s boundaries and capacities to serve others, learning which part of one’s self to set aside and which to carry forward—knocking the barnacles off, so to speak—in order to live in loving service to God and neighbor.

This means the leader needs to develop an understanding of love languages and basic temperament, perhaps through the use of personality tests like the Enneagram, Strengths-Finders, Colby, or Meyers-Briggs. Also, working with a therapist, an executive coach or spiritual director, or joining a peer-based advising team, spending time in

silent retreat or gathering a clearing committee would be beneficial. This is not merely to gain self-insight. Self-examination as the beginning and end of the journey is selfish. Instead, it is to use acquired insight to heighten one’s capacity to serve.

The inward journey to understand self is turned toward service and focused outward—as if it is a rubber band stretched before being propelled across the room to its destination. Think of it as grace received so that grace can be offered. Understand it as calling clarified so that it can be recognized and clarified in others. Practice it as being present with and accepting one’s self in order to have cultivated the skill to be present with others.

Selfish is distracted and elsewhere. Selfish has something better to do.

Self-less (self-aware) is present in the moment. The moment the self is in is precious in its own right.