Jul 21, 2022 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: The selfish benefit of selflessness

Illustration of a newspaper with the Axios logo and a thought bubble.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

This originally appeared in Axios Finish line as CEO Jim VandeHei's weekly column on life and leadership lessons. Sign up here.

The best people and leaders put their friends, colleagues and company above their own ambition.

Why it matters: It's often the wild CEOs with cutthroat cultures who get featured in books or HBO shows. But the most successful — and happy — leaders we know realize their own selfish ambitions by genuinely serving others. 

  • This sounds counterintuitive. But particularly in this era of valuing inclusion and purpose at work, people want to do things for people who do things for others.
  • This is like a magnet, attracting other talented people of high character who want and cheer for you to succeed. You, in turn, benefit.
  • The opposite is true, too: You can win a battle or an early promotion by being an ass or hiding your self-obsession. But it will bite you or bring you down eventually. Or leave you lonely at the top. Both outcomes are terrible.

This helps explain the massive surge in companies seeking leaders with soft skills, including high emotional intelligence.

  • The next wave of great CEOs will have a healthy mix of strong opinions and intuition, risk-taking courage, and high EQ. 

We're all selfish and ambitious in some respects. That’s actually great: It motivates and stimulates you.

  • But if you can train yourself to be more selfless by freezing big moments in your mind and looking at them through others’ eyes, needs and wants, you'll see big returns. 

This works in business and life. My co-author Mike Allen is the one who turned me on to the power of it at work.

  • He noted how he always treats everyone the same, regardless of status, and always looks for chances to serve.
  • He doesn't do this because he wants something in return. But he's amazed how often those same people do big things for him down the road. 

Here’s the best part: You can train yourself to do this.

  1. Start small. Look for one chance each week to help a colleague, your team or a friend — and seek no credit for it.
  2. Check back six months later. I bet you'll see a noticeable improvement in your relationships, standing and happiness.
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