Business leaders working with team


A survey conducted by career website Monster reported that 76% of people looking for a new job are primarily motivated by the desire to flee their current position. Rather than seeking advancement or the next logical step in their career journey, these folks are desperate to get out from under the thumb of a toxic boss.

What does it mean to be a toxic supervisor? Responses varied from “power-hungry” to “micromanager” to “consistently unavailable” to provide help or guidance. However respondents defined toxicity, Monster’s survey vividly illustrated the importance of selflessness in leadership.

Whenever leaders think more about themselves than the team they manage, morale is sure to plummet. Engagement in mission will nose-dive, absenteeism will climb, productivity will stall and HR’s revolving door will rotate faster than a Midwest tornado.

On the other hand, the benefits of selfless leadership are obvious, especially to employees who previously had to deal with a toxic boss. But a selfless leadership style does not come naturally. Just like anything else worth pursuing, managers will need to be intentional about putting others first. Fortunately, a few simple practices can help get you on the right track.

1. Practice Ongoing Helpfulness

You don’t want to be the type of leader who is content to point others in the desired direction and then forget about them. Guiding your employees through “teachable moments” as they crop up shows that you truly care and want them to succeed. Your team will appreciate that you regularly go the extra mile to help them as opposed to doing the bare minimum.

Not that this means micromanagement or excessive hand-holding. Well-timed, clear communication will help your employees perform tasks right the first time, cement clear expectations and encourage autonomy. The importance of effective communication as a leadership skill can’t be overstated.

Making yourself accessible and available is another essential element of practicing helpfulness. Maintaining an open-door policy allows your team to approach you with questions or concerns when they stall out. The ongoing guidance this enables will be a win for them and a win for you.

2. Give Selflessly

Employees can sometimes make the mistake of feeling like the companies they work for do nothing but take from them. In return for a sometimes less-than-ample paycheck, they feel the company takes their time, energy, talent and resources.

Managers can correct this misperception by giving back through selfless acts of service. Try surprising your staff with donuts one morning. Let your team go home an hour early with pay. Volunteer to pitch in on an employee’s most demanding project. Even small acts of service can help dispel a lot of grumbling.

My friend Jonathan Keyser illustrates this principle perfectly in You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win. In his book, Keyser describes his transformation from cut-throat commercial realtor to selfless giver. The switch produced even more success in a competitive industry. He found that achieving results through service beat out getting ahead through spin and manipulation every time. Keyser’s real estate firm is now an eight-figure company built around that mindset.

To build a culture of selflessness, consider offering others the opportunity to give selflessly of their own free will. (Peer pressure or enforced giving won’t work.) You could put together a challenge for co-workers to surprise each other with random acts of kindness. Your company could coordinate with a local charity to participate in volunteer work. Pick something that aligns with your authentic interests and lead by example.

3. Set a Positive Tone

Attitudes are contagious, for better or worse. Since your team looks to you as their example, your attitude will have the most impact.

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that businesses lose $3 billion dollars annually due to the effects of negative attitudes. Negativity creates workplace drama that no one needs.

Expressing a positive attitude goes beyond the “fake it until you make it” approach. Emphasize the importance of mental and emotional wellness throughout your organization. Encourage employees to make time for themselves and to incorporate healthy habits into their daily lives. Reinforce your positive messages by living them out in your own approach to work.

4. Encourage Growth

Most people focus primarily on their own well-being. Great leaders are able to simultaneously focus on their well-being and that of others. Recognizing that a commitment to growth led to their own success, they naturally want to encourage ongoing growth in others. 

When tempted to tighten the pursestrings, a selfless leader sees investment in someone else’s growth as mutually beneficial. Selfless leaders:

  • Take time to help individuals set specific goals.
  • Hold regular, low-pressure performance reviews. 
  • Show appreciation for work well done.
  • Celebrate successes, large or small.
  • Give honest, constructive feedback.

Selfless leaders reinforce the need for ongoing growth by holding themselves accountable in the area of personal growth. Seeing leaders make an effort to address their own weaknesses encourages team members to push past their own challenges.

Selflessness also means owning up to the mistakes you make. If a mistake happens in public, address it publicly. Nothing builds team loyalty quite like a leader unafraid to demonstrate humility.

5. Make the Tough Decisions

Not all acts of selflessness will be recognized as such in the moment. Leaders sometimes have to make difficult decisions that temporarily put them in a bad light. Employees don’t typically see the hours of struggle and sleepless nights that went into making those tough calls.

Selfish leaders do whatever it takes to please the masses. Great leaders, by contrast, recognize when hard decisions need to be made. Knowing their actions won’t be readily accepted at first, they follow through with them anyway. By choosing the needs of the many instead of the path of least resistance, these selfless leaders enable their companies to grow and thrive. 

Selflessness as a leadership style might not feel natural right away, but taking small, conscious steps to put your team members before yourself every day will lift them up over the long haul. It will also drastically improve the effectiveness of your leadership.