A leader patting someone on the back during a business meeting.

Do you need other people? Are you a giver or a taker? Do you tend to run ahead of others and leave them behind?

Many leaders think in terms of what’s best for themselves and base their decisions on their personal goals and opinions. John C. Maxwell writes that, to be an effective leader, you must prioritize your team’s needs over your personal ambitions.

Keep reading for Maxwell’s advice on how to practice selflessness in leadership.

Selflessness in Leadership

Maxwell suggests you consider how you can help your team perform and shine instead of how your team can help you achieve a certain objective—this is selflessness in leadership. When you focus on supporting your team’s needs and leveraging each member’s strengths, you can harness the collective power of your team and achieve greater results.

(Shortform note: Maxwell’s principle of putting your team before yourself aligns with the philosophy of servant leadership proposed by Robert Greenleaf. In Servant Leadership, Greenleaf argues that the most impactful leaders are those who focus on serving others and making the world a better place. He believes such leaders are the solution to addressing the inefficacies of many American institutions, and he defines three elements of servant leadership: a goal that benefits the common good, an altruistic desire to serve others, and the ability to inspire others to become servant leaders themselves.)

Maxwell provides three tips to help you adopt a team-oriented focus.

#1: Acknowledge the Importance of Others

Recognize that you need others, and help your team members recognize this, too. Promote collaboration in your team by inspiring each person to help others improve instead of trying to outdo them. This turns team members into collaborators instead of rivals. By doing this, you cultivate an environment where people uplift one another, which in turn boosts morale.

(Shortform note: You may find it easier to acknowledge the importance of others by adopting an abundance mindset. The authors of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership argue that effective leaders recognize that resources (like jobs, money, or recognition) are abundant—there are enough to make everyone happy. This mindset makes them more willing to collaborate and support others. Conversely, having a scarcity mindset—or the belief that there aren’t enough resources to go around—can tempt people to compete instead of collaborate. One way to shift your mindset to abundance is by meditating on the present moment and recognizing that you have everything you need.)

#2: Pace Yourself With the Team

Maxwell writes that leaders tend to be people of action who like to hurry toward their goals. But he notes that, when leading a team, it’s important that you don’t seek your own individual success if it leaves your team behind. Match the speed and efforts of your team to ensure everyone moves forward together. This means adapting to your team’s changing needs. At times, you’ll need to take the lead, but stay close enough for team members to see you and be inspired to follow you. Other times, walk alongside your team by discussing the journey with them. 

You may also need to support your team from behind with encouraging words. Even if the pace seems slower, progressing toward your objectives collectively as a team makes everyone feel energized and connected, and it allows you to make more significant strides toward your goals. 

(Shortform note: The authors of First, Break All the Rules agree on the importance of adapting to the needs of your team, but they argue this doesn’t mean that you should give everyone on your team the same level of support or attention. Instead, they advise that you give more support to your best employees, who have more potential and can use your support more effectively. Though this might seem at odds with Maxwell’s advice to pace the team to arrive at goals together, it doesn’t necessarily conflict—it adds the nuance that a leader must consider all aspects of how to best support their team.)

#3: Look for Opportunities to Help Others

Instead of focusing on what you can get from others, focus on how you can improve the lives of your employees. Look for ways to help others become better and to celebrate their successes. Maxwell argues that giving is more rewarding and, although you shouldn’t let this be your primary motivation for helping others, you’ll often receive more in return by naturally helping others than you could have asked for.

(Shortform note: In Give and Take, Adam Grant argues that givers (people who put others first without expecting anything in return) tend to achieve greater success and life satisfaction than takers (people who are only interested in what they can get from others). However, he adds that you must maintain a healthy balance between giving to others and taking care of yourself to protect your mental and physical well-being. You can still be giving, but be intentional with your time as well as how and to whom you give. This way, you can avoid overextending yourself and be more helpful to others in the long run.)

Selflessness in Leadership: 3 Ways to Put Your Team First

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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