#151: Me, Myself, and I, the Unholy Trinity of the Selfish Leader

There was a time in my early days as a leader when I thought quite highly of myself. I perceived myself as being smarter than most of my bosses, certainly smarter than my peers, and my employees, well they were downright lucky to have me as their boss!

Selfish Leader

Looking back, I believe my leadership style came from a confluence of my own insecurities and the command and control style of leadership exhibited by the post WWII leaders I worked for.

What that means is I did everything I could to hide my own insecurities behind a wall of bravado. It means that everything I said and did as a leader was designed selfishly to advance the cause of me, myself, and I.

Thankfully for me (and everyone in our organization), I became a Christian, and God started working on me right away. I soon realized the kind of leader I was, was not the kind of leader I wanted to be.

I’d like to say my transition was like a larva in its cocoon that metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly. But it wasn’t. It was more like I was this huge piece of stone that God had to hammer away at, until He got something that He could use.

Because of my history, I can spot selfish leaders from a mile away. Check this list of seven characteristics. If someone has three or four of these characteristics, they are well on their way to being a selfish leader:

1) Rejects counsel and advice from others.

The selfish leader believes he/she is the smartest person in the room, and there is little to be gained from listening to the wisdom of others. Even if someone else has a good idea the selfish leader will reject it because it isn’t theirs.

Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, rejected the counsel of his father’s advisors. Instead he listened to his young friends who told him what he wanted to hear, and the result was rebellion in the kingdom and war. (1 Kings 12)

2) Makes unrealistic demands on others.

The selfish leader will make unrealistic demands on others in an effort to further their own agenda.

Solomon had taxed the people heavily to pay for his own luxurious lifestyle and all his building projects. Rehoboam, promised the people rather than lighten their load he would lay an even heavier burden on the people. (1 Kings 12)

3) Threatens drastic punishment for failing to meet demands.

The selfish leader is not afraid to beat people into submission. They will cajole, humiliate, threaten, and if needed, make an example of one to “motivate” others.

When Rehoboam announced his new “I’ll tax you more than ever” plan he followed up with a threat saying, if you thought my father was hard on you when he whipped you, wait till I get ahold of you! (1 Kings 12)

4) Refuse to help others. The selfish leader isn’t about to help others unless there is something in it for them.

Nabal was a very wealthy man. David and his men had protected Nabal’s servants and his flocks from robbers and nothing had been lost while David gave them protection. When David and his men needed some food and water they asked Nabal and he refused to help them. (1 Samuel 25)

5) Makes rash pronouncements.

The selfish leader is all about grandiose gestures, promises, and proclamations. It’s all about making him look bigger than life.

Jephthah returned victorious from battle and announced that whatever came out of his door to greet him he would kill as an offering to the Lord. Who should emerge to greet him but his virgin daughter! (Judges 11)

6) Obsessive Paranoia.

The selfish leader is often paranoid that someone will discover their incompetence. When that paranoia becomes fixated on a single individual or group they seek the destruction of their “enemy.”

Saul was just such a king. He was paranoid that David was about to take away his kingdom and he became so fixated on David that his risked the kingdom in an attempt to kill David. (1 Samuel 22)

7) Rejects God’s direction.

The selfish leader doesn’t just think he knows better than his contemporaries. He or she is also able to rationalize their decisions as being better for them than following God’s direction.

Jonah was a prophet of God. But when it came to delivering the message of repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah rejected God’s call, and ran the other direction. We all know how that worked out! (Jonah 1)

Truth be told I still struggle with being a selfish leader sometimes. But when that happens God gets out his big hammer and chisel, and starts hammering away on me. He’s trying to make me more like Jesus.

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome. Have you worked for or with a selfish leader? How did it affect you? The organization?


Category: Relationships | Interpersonal Relationships

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John says:

    As much as we want to serve others I suppose there’s always a bit of self interest whispering in our ear. Leaders have to remember the Golden Rule in their work. That rule alone has served me fairly well!

    • Ron says:

      So true, that self-interest “whispering” in the ear can be downright distracting. The Golden Rule is a great place for us to start. I think the challenge comes when we have to deal with people who seem to have never heard of it!

  • Excellent article! I was taught in my Org Dev degree from Biola that leaders might have an over inflated idea of what it means to work for themselves, meaning that they believe they are the best boss and everyone just LOVES working for them. I try to keep this idea in mind in my own leadership tasks and those I coach. Never a good on any level to think more highly than you ought about yourself. Thanks for the reminder Ron. HR Professional and Biola grad 2010.

    • Ron says:

      Thanks! Good to hear from a fellow alum! So true, never a good idea to think too highly of oneself. Life has a way of making the proud humble!

  • Thelma says:

    Thank you Ron.God bless you in this article. It helps me discern if my leader is getting selfish. Nevertheless, as a member in the church, how can I help our leaders to let them see themselves in a selfish condition.

    • Ron says:

      Great question! And a very difficult one to answer in this space not knowing much about the situation. As a church member, it can be difficult to coach/influence church leadership. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

      1) Begin with prayer. Ask the Lord to show you the path He wants you to take.
      2) Model unselfish behavior. Your own Godly example of an unselfish servant is a powerful testimony.
      2) Ask a Godly advisor. Is there a Godly person outside the church you might confide in to ask for advice?

      I hope this helps!