The Importance of “Self” in a Leader

We often say that Christian leaders ought to be selfless. But have we considered what we mean by this word? Is it possible for a leader be self-ish without being selfish?

One of the most thought-provoking books on leadership I’ve read in the past 12 months is Edwin H. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve. (I give a brief video summary of this book here.) Friedman, who died in 1996, was a Jewish Rabbi, a family therapist, and a leadership consultant. His take on leadership is interesting, intriguing, and nuanced.

Friedman discerned in American culture a “systemic anxiety” which subtly works to destabilize leaders and undermine their leadership. One of the ways this anxiety manifests itself is in “the association of self with autocracy and narcissism rather than with integrity and individuality.” Friedman explains:

This negative orientation toward self is a natural spin-off of a chronically anxious society’s focus on pathology rather than strength. Such a distorted focus contaminates all thinking about individuality in both families and other institutions… that is because those who lack self-definition, whether they are children, marriage partners, employees, clients, therapists, or supervisors, will always perceive those who are well-defined to be ‘headstrong…’ they will describe well-differentiated leaders as compulsive rather than persistent… as inflexible rather than principled… as hostile rather than aggressive… as bull-headed rather than resolute… as autocratic rather than tough-minded.
Well-meaning efforts to eliminate the evils of selfishness by eliminating self can have a regressive effect on a community… Far from being antagonistic to the purposes of community, the expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of a community possible… Well-defined self in a leader – what I call self-differentiation – is not only critical to effective leadership, it is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.
The twin problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self but of weak or no self.

I think Friedman is onto something here. At the risk of over-simplifying his insights, I seem him proposing a “third way” of understanding self. We are often pressured to embrace a binary choice: either the self or the community, either individuality or togetherness, either me or us. When faced with this binary choice, choosing “self” is always a choice against community, against togetherness, against “us.” But this binary choice is a fallacy. In reality there are three options:

No sense of self                  Well-differentiated self                Selfishness/autocracy
(all us, no me)                      (me, for the sake of us)                (all me, no us)

I’m especially convinced of Friedman’s point that “Well-defined self in a leader… is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”

So, leaders: do you understand the difference between self and selfishness? Are you growing in having a well-defined presence, yet without selfishness and self-will?

(As a gospel aside: learning this will likely involve some mistakes and over-corrections. That’s why you’ll need to continually return to the gospel. You’ll likely fail by being autocratic, harsh, and inflexible (selfish). Or, you’ll fail by being unprincipled, soft, and passive (self-less). Continual repentance and faith, strengthened by the grace of God in Jesus, will be necessary.)

In summary, Christian leaders should be selfless… but not self-less. What new insights does this discussion give you? What questions does it raise?


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