Leadership 6: Rule #1: It’s not about you. Always put the team’s interests ahead of your own personal interests.

I believe in service leadership, striving to create a positive change not just in myself, but in those I lead, and in the world around me. This introductory video, “Servant Leadership”  was created by the University of the Southwest and it  explains what servant leadership is so in such a stirring way, I hate to start with it, because it will be a hard act to follow.

Leadership 6 In a Nutshell: Bad bosses believe that leadership is all about their personal glory and power.  They get to tell people what to do, and when things go right, they are in the limelight, they get to take the credit; and if something goes wrong, they get to push the blame off on anyone else.  They believe they have earned their time on the pedestal of power and expect to be treated as the star of the show.  A true leader knows that they are accepting responsibility to make their team members’ experience fulfilling and as enjoyable as possible, and they know that from time-to-time they must accept the blame for errors committed by their team.  They accept the role of servant in support of their team members, and they choose to keep the spotlight on their team. A leader knows that the joy of leadership is seeing team members grow and accomplish more than you ever expected, and the leaders long term goal is to produce leaders who lead better than they do.

The Leadership principles to help you keep the focus off you and on your team:

1. Rule #1, It’s not about you.

2. Leaders choose to eat last.

3. Leadership is about giving to the team.

4. Honor your position by staying humble and honoring the people who helped you get where you are.

5. A leadership position comes with benefits, put those benefits belong to the position, not to you. 

6. Always strive to put the spotlight on their team members.

7. Find your path to becoming the type of leader who puts their team first by doing a self-inventory to help identify the positive leadership traits you want to embody.

8. Your goal should be to create leaders who are better than you.  We create more leaders by modeling excellent leadership behavior.

Credit: RelicsWorld

“What if you could change the world?”  I love the question that video asks because it is inspiring to think about changing the whole world.  I planned on doing just that when I was young, hell, I still thought I would change the world when I was 30. But now after 51 years of working with people in crisis and mentoring my peers; 44 years as a social justice lawyer, I have found that my way  of changing the world is to focus on one person, one heart at a time.  And I learned that if change is your goal, the workplace is a fertile field where a real leader can create an environment where the team flourishes and works with joy.  You want those you lead to look back on their time with you as some of the best years of their life.  How do you get to be that kind of leader?  By committing to service leadership.

I was once asked to request testimonials from former interns to use in recruiting, and from time-to-time I will include examples which speak to a particular leadership moment while trying to appear humble.  (Which reminds me of this story. A judge once complimented me on a brief I had written and I replied, “Judge, you humble me,” and he responded, “Mr. Lang, trust me, you have much to be humble about.”  So I present these snippets which speak in praise of our internship program with all the humbleness I can muster.)

Grace Paine, Yale College, Summer 2016 

“My internship with the ABA Commission on Immigration was one of the single most important experiences I had during undergrad in shaping what I wanted to do with my life. . . Mr. Lang’s attitude toward mentorship is, at this point, legendary, but I will conclude by noting how valuable it is for young people entering the workforce during uncertain and insecure times to encounter one of the most compassionate and encouraging supervisors alive today. (That sounds like hyperbole; I do not believe it is.) I think every student participating in the internship has been given the opportunity to leave more convinced in his or her own potential to add value to our world.”

1. Rule #1, it’s not about you

Peter Anderton is an English mechanical engineer who has developed two rules about leadership after analyzing his own terrible handling of a struggling candy company in England. “I learned much more from my failures than from my successes.” He kept searching for the problems in the company. Was it the production?  Was it the workers? And then he discovered that the problem was himself, and how he was a failure of a leader because he violated Rule #1 by keeping the focus on himself.  From that experience, he boils leadership down to two simple rules.  Today we are going to talk about Rule #1, “It’s not about you.”  This is THE most important thing to recognize about leadership. Leadership is not about YOU – it’s about THEM! Or to misquote Bill Clinton, “It’s about your people, stupid.” EVERYTHING you ever need to know about leadership starts here. 

I am going to use the Peter Anderton approach to guide the discussion in this post and the next post where we address Rule #2, “It’s ONLY about you.” If you would like to watch his entire video you can see it here. https://youtu.be/oDsMlmfLjd4

How a bad boss violates Rule #1

We have been led to believe that once you are the boss you have all the power to drive your team and your company to success.  You tell people what to do, they do it, they are successful, and you get all the credit.  You assume a position of power and you think, finally there is no one to get in the way of my success!  Being the boss means everyone has to obey you, so if there is a failure, it’s their fault because obviously they didn’t follow your instructions. When there is a success, all the credit is given to your persistence in driving those bumbling idiots to follow your plan.

But a leader does the opposite by putting others first.

“In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain.  In business we are willing to give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so we may gain. We have it backwards.” Simon Sinek

Credit ABC News

“Marine William “Kyle” Carpenter received the Medal of Honor today from President Barack Obama, an award reserved for those who show the utmost bravery in combat.  Carpenter received the medal for his decision to jump on a grenade and save his friend while in combat in Afghanistan three years ago. ” ABC news. Lance Corporal Carpenter’s jaw and right arm were shattered, and he lost his right eye and most of his teeth. (Wikipedia)

How to get it right

The philosophy of “me, me, me,” is ever present in the minds of bad bosses.  They take no responsibility for caring for the health and welfare of their team, they think of workers as cogs in a large impersonal machine, pieces whose only responsibility is to complete the tasks assigned, and if they have a problem, if they falter, they are replace, “Don’t let the exit door hit ya on the butt on the way out! And good luck finding another job, you loser!” 

And this attitude can exist in any organization that is poorly led.  A sad example of this was back in 1980 at Iowa Legal Services when my team raised the issue that our paralegals were terribly underpaid, they desperately needed a raise, and we desperately needed them.  The response from the Central Office? “We are in a recession, there is a line of people waiting at the door to take their jobs.”  And this was in a social justice program, dedicated to helping poor people! 

How a leader honors Rule #1. Leaders Choose to Eat Last 

Field Marshal Slim Credit: Burma Star Association

“As officers, you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, or even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.” Field Marshal Slim, British military commander World War II.

One of the cardinal rules in the military is that officers eat last, and I have told the story of watching my Drill Sergeant, Roy Burchfield do exactly that, ensuring that his team was fed, and then accepting that he would miss a meal when the food ran out. 

Credit: LinkenIn

Drill Sergeant Roy Burchfield

Simon Sinek addresses how parents instinctively live out this principle of making sacrifices to protect those in our care.

See entire video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMeuk0ZtLM0

You also see examples of how leadership resembles good parenting when the leader check in every day to see how each team member is doing physically and emotionally, or when the leader sits down to patiently help a team member remedy a mistake. A bad boss wants to take and take.  But when the team sees their leader give and give, it inspires them to work harder because they want to be worth the value you leader sees in them.  There was recently a Story Corps conversation on NPR and a man was recounting how growing up in a family of agricultural workers, he was unaware that his family was poor.  But he recalled many nights when their dinner consisted of tortillas, butter, and salt.  He would have two tortillas, his brother would have two, but his mother would have none. He would offer her a bite of his tortillas and she would say, “Gracias, miho, pero no tengo hambre.” “Thank you, my child, but I’m not hungry.”  That is what parents do, they sacrifice themselves for their children, and that is what a good leader does – first you make sure your team has what they need, then you worry for yourself.

3. Leadership requires giving.

Simon Sinek says that leadership requires sacrifice, but as I have been thinking about this it occurs to me that sacrifice is not the right word, I prefer to use the word “giving.”  I wrote a post entitled, “Leadership – Don’t insist on helping people who don’t want your help.” https://rebob1949.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/leadership-1-dont-insist-on-helping-people-who-dont-want-your-help/ And the crux of this post is that one of the main drivers of our desire to help others is because it makes US happy.  Oh sure, it helps the other person, and seeing that person prosper is great, but we also do it because it makes us happy.  And that is not a bad thing, I am all for making ourselves happy, but we must be careful that we do not force our help on people who don’t want it.  If a person declines our offer, accept their refusal graciously, assure them you will be there for them if they need your help in the future, but allow them the dignity of refusing your offer. 

So rather than use “sacrifice” prefer to use the term, “giving” because if I get pleasure spending my money to take my interns to lunch on their first day as the first step in team building, giving my team a chance to know each other as people, that is a gift to all of us, and the expense is no sacrifice.  Or when I bought them headphones to help them answer phone calls from ICE detainees, it was money out of my pocket, but it made their job so much easier.  (It’s a shame that it took me 7 years to figure that one out!) Or when I rented a van to drive us all to a detention center so the interns could meet the people that had been calling our office for help, to see the real human beings on the other end of the telephone line, to see them behind bars, in orange jumpsuits, and see the smiles of gratitude that someone finally was caring about their situation.  And you can’t put a monetary value on an experience like that. But I won’t call this a sacrifice because I did it because it made me happy to be able to give opportunities to my team.

York County Prison, York Pennsylvania, and my team eating lunch after spending the morning been led by staff on a tour of the prison which holds ICE detainees.  We did many of these visits, and during our lunchtime analysis of how well the facility was following the rules, the verdict was always positive.  The staff knew the rules and swore they were following the rules.  We would get a completely different story of how detainees were treated during our afternoon interviews.

4. Honor your position by staying humble and honoring the people who helped you get where you are.

I recently read an article that said that whether you are generous, or not generous depends upon how you view the roots of your success throughout your life.  People who believe their success is due in large part because they have been “lucky,” which may be lucky in the parents they chose, or lucky in the opportunities they have been given in their life, lucky in the people they have met who helped them achieve more, or just plain lucky.  These “lucky” people are more generous because they recognize that not every break we get in life is earned, so they want to pass along what they can to others who may not have been so lucky.

Conversely, people who claim to have made their own success without the help of anyone else, and often in spite of the obstacles placed in their path by others, these people are the least generous, as if saying, “Hey I made it on my own, so you can too.  And if you are having problems, you are not working hard enough, so don’t come to me expecting a handout.”  

The owner of a huge manufacturing plant was complaining about governmental regulation. “I built this business from the ground up without any help from the government, so the government can’t come in here and makes demands on me.”  And I wondered, did this person attend a public school as a child?  A state university?  A private school paid for by his parents? Did this person lay the asphalt for the road leading from the freeway to their plant?  Was he down in the ditch hooking up the water and sewer lines? Build the power plant and put up the power lines to carry the electricity that powers their plant?  Was he the creator of FEDEX, UPS, or the US Postal Service that gets his product to the consumer?  If you think about it, even when we succeed individually, we are actually building upon the efforts of many others.

Even Tom Hanks couldn’t have survived on that deserted island without help from the Wilson Sporting Goods company.

Tom Hanks and Wilson in Castaway. Credit: Queensland Times

I heard a comedian recently talk about a certain politicians who claims to have made it on his own with just a paltryl multi-million dollar starter gift from dad.  “He was born on third base and claims to have hit a triple.”

5. A leadership position comes with benefits, put those benefits belong to the position, not to you. 

And recognizing that our success is built on the shoulders of others, leads us to this video in which Simon tells the story illustrating how the privileges of position which are given to leaders belong not to the person, but to the position.

See the entire video here: https://youtu.be/8l-YpiiBH4o

This is a reminder that even as you ascend to higher and higher levels of leadership, and as people treat you with more and more deference, remember who you are, and if you remain a humble servant of those you lead, you will never betray the sacred trust which is leadership.

6. The goal of a leader is to put the spotlight on their team members. Having established that leadership it is not about you, build your team up by highlighting the achievements of the team members.

Credit: The Video Domain

With every victory, always acknowledge that it was the teamwork that made it possible. Be generous in passing out awards and rewards. I have mentioned my use of “Golden Bricks,” small compliments I give out throughout the day.  My strategy was to sneak up on my team, watch them like a hawk and try each and every day to catch each team member doing something right, and compliment them on that, putting them in the spotlight.  And the best compliments about a job well done are very specific.  If you use a general statement, “You did a great job last week,” it may be interpreted as you just going through the motions of trying to find something nice to say.  But a specific compliment is clearly a sincere compliment. “That was a really ingenious use of that chart to show the number of detainees from each country we are receiving calls from!”

When my daughters were little we used to swing by the office occasionally and as they got older they would often be embarrassed as we walked back to the metro and they saw me alter course and head toward a worker with a broom and barrel who was sweeping up trash.  They would pretend they didn’t know me and give each other the look all parents know, “Oh no, there he goes again.”  I always made it a point to tell the street sweepers, “I just want to thank you for your great work in keeping this area so clean!  With the thousands of people who pass through here, it is amazing how great it always looks.”  I may have embarrassed my daughters, but the startled smiles I received from those normally invisible workers were worth it.  Golden bricks, never leave home without out a few in your pocket to give away.

“It doesn’t cost you a crying dime to give a working man a compliment for doing his job well.” Gilbert “Chick” Lang, My Dad.

7. Find your path to becoming the type of leader who puts their team first by doing a self-inventory to help identify the positive leadership traits you want to embody.

Credit: AZ Quotes

What do you need to change about yourself to become a leader that puts the interests of the team first?  First you must have an idea of what the qualities of that leader are.


Think about the best leaders you ever had.  What did those people say and do?  How did their actions make you feel? Write down five attributes of the best leaders you have had.

Think about the worst bosses you ever had.  Make a list of 5 things they said and did to ruin your day.

Now go through each of those traits and give yourself a score from 1 to 5, with 1 being “It is something you never do” and 5 being “Something you always do.”

 For example, if you had a bad boss who would assign you a task with a vague description of what they wanted, and then refused to answer your requests for clarification, then give yourself a score of 1 to 5 on how good are you are inviting questions to explain exactly what you want your team member to do.

I have had bosses who refused to think through what they were requesting, and thereafter resisted answering clarifying questions.  This drove me frustrated me, so in my first day orientation which I gave my interns and new co-workers I included a series of suggestions, one of which had to do with giving them permission to badger me with questions.

“4. If I tell you I want you to do something, and you don’t understand what I want you to do, that’s my fault, because I am the only person on planet Earth who knows what I am trying to communicate.  Therefore, I am giving you permission to keep asking me questions until you have a clear understanding of exactly what I am trying to say.  A continuous series of questions is not nagging me, it is helping me learn how to communicate better.”

So on my list of what real leaders do, “Communicate clearly what they expect” I give myself a 5, always does this.

After you have listed the positive actions you want to cultivate, and the negative actions you wish to avoid, and after you have rated how often you do each, it will give you goals to try and meet each day as you interact with your team members.  And please, be gentle with yourself, the goal is not perfection, the goal is to do better today than you did yesterday.

8. Your goal should be to create leaders who are better than you.  We create more leaders by modeling excellent leadership behavior.

I told this story in the introduction.  One of my best interns was a law student named Zehra.  She had a sharp mind and such incredible charisma that people were naturally drawn to her as a leader. 

A year after she worked with me she had another internship with at an organization with an outstanding reputation for doing good.  But Zehra’s experience was negative there because they failed to draw on her skills, had her working alone and without necessary supervision.  And we exchanged the following texts.

“Mr. Bob, I am sad because I think I already had the best boss I will ever have.”

“Dear Zehra, thank you for the compliment, but you are missing the point.  I modeled good leadership for you so that you will be a better leader than I am.  And you, in turn, will model leadership for those with whom you work so that they are better leaders than you are.  And over time, we will create a revolution of excellent leadership in the workplace.”

I want to end with this short video by Mark Sanborn, “Leadership is a Choice, Not a Title” in which he talks about the importance of inviting others to become leaders, and how the first job of leadership is to prove significance to others.

Coming attractions: Leader7: Leadership Rule #2: It’s ONLY about you!

I need your help. I would like this series of leadership posts to be a living document.  If you are a leader and have some strategies which have worked for you, please let me add them to this.  If you becoming a better leader and have questions, write me.  If you know someone who has recently been promoted, or someone who is struggling, please pass this on so we can include them in the conversation.  We are all in this together! Let us all become the leaders we always wished we had!

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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