Most practitioners in the field of leadership development would agree that increased self-awareness is one of the first stages of professional growth. Taking personality inventories such as the MBTI or soliciting 360 degree feedback from a boss, peers and direct reports enables us to better understand the impact of our preferences and behaviors. It’s akin to viewing a whole bunch of selfies. The belief in the power of self-knowledge goes way back. The words 'Know Thyself' were inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Plato by way of Socrates referenced the aphorism multiple times. It wasn’t only the Greeks who believed in this stuff. Farther to the east, monks in the Zen Buddhist tradition taught that by "pointing at your own heart, you find Buddha".
Sounds like a good thing, right? But at what point does all this self-reflection become self-absorption? After all, the pejorative term ‘navel gazing’ suggests a narcissistic waste of time.
Perhaps it’s a matter of scope. A leader needs a certain amount of ego—a sufficient level of self-esteem and self-importance—to take on the additional responsibility and risk inherent to a leadership role. However, for true leaders, ego is only a starting place. A strong sense of self, coupled with self-awareness, is a stepping-stone to serving a larger purpose. Conversely, self-centeredness starts and ends with the self. Narcissus fell in love with his own image and ultimately drowned.
Years ago my father passed on to me a concept that I’ve since coined ‘Dad’s Theory of Selfishness’ and gone on to share with a number of coaching clients. Think of concentric circles with Self in the middle surrounded by Family-Community-Organization-Country-World.
As we evolve as leaders, more and more comes under our care. In other words, our sphere of selfishness grows ever larger. Selfishness in and of itself isn’t right or wrong. Rather, what are we selfish about? From this angle, people like Mother Theresa and Gandhi may be the most selfish of us all.
Do you want to join our community and receive monthly articles on accelerated wisdom, executive excellence, and mindful leadership? Click here to subscribe.