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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Garcia

Leading Selflessly

Yesterday I Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I find it necessary to reflect on why selflessness (in my opinion) is the most important trait any military member could have and why it is a necessary leadership component to create impact in our world.

One of the most selfless leaders we could ever admire is Jesus. Why would the perfect leader sacrifice himself for people undeserving of his grace and love? Because he was the perfect leader! All the pain he sustained and the decisions he made were for the assured well-being of every single human for the remainder of time. The very nature of his existence was selfless. God sent his own son to pay the price for humanity’s eternal sin. Could you imagine giving up your most valued possession without ever asking for anything in return?

I recently had the privilege of listening to Dr. Jonny Kim’s story on the Jocko Podcast. From the moment Dr. Kim decided to become a Navy SEAL, he immediately embraced and exuded selflessness in his decisions and actions. To this day, his decisions evolve around honoring the fallen and less fortunate by ensuring he is positively contributing to a better future.

I argue that there are seven characteristics that the truly selfless exude. The selfless provide service with humility, put away pride and avoid narcissistic behaviors, make sacrifices, respect everyone, don’t take anything for granted, and have an unconditional desire to help others.

Selfless leaders…

1. Provide service to others. Service means providing a benefit to somebody other than yourself. This may involve helping others complete tasks they cannot do on their own or may simply involve performing an act of kindness (giving somebody a gift or spending quality time). One of the easiest ways to demonstrate service is by volunteering. As a cadet, my buddies and I would occasionally commit our Sunday mornings to cooking and serving food at a local homeless shelter. While we would have enjoyed sleeping in, the extra three hours of sleep were never worth more than the gratification that came from serving warm meals to the less fortunate.

2. Serve with humility. No job is below a selfless leader. They are willing to perform any task that works towards completing the mission or takes care of their people. How many times have we seen the example of somebody in a position of authority delegate unfavorable tasks to those at the bottom of the food chain? An example that comes to mind was during my first week as a fry cook at McDonald’s; one of the managers and I working the evening shift. A family walked in and ordered a McFlurry for their youngest daughter. The daughter had a stomachache from the sugar concentration and ended up vomiting on the lobby floor. Coincidentally, when this accident occurred my shift manager was on his way out for his break, three cars pulled into the drive through, and two customers came inside to order. As he exited the building for a smoke, the manager told me to find a way to clean up the vomit with nothing but my hands and the one-ply napkins in the lobby (no saw dust or janitorial supplies available at that moment), while also ensuring the customers in the lobby and drive-thru were taken care of, and that I was monitoring the chicken nuggets and the fries in the kitchen. This chaotic environment pushed my task-saturation and patience to the limit, as I was effectively left as the only employee to simultaneously satisfy the demands of six different customers and a puddle of regurgitated McFlurry. As a manager, I think it would have been more sincere and better for the business to postpone the smoke break and actively help diffuse the time-sensitive demands of the lobby, drive-thru, and sick little girl.

3. Put away pride and avoid narcissism. Living with pride can cause second-order character defects. Being too prideful can inhibit forgiveness, the recognition of personal flaws, and the ability to receive grace. People who have achieved something of significance in their life may begin to lie, cheat, or misbehave in order to compensate for their pride. Failing to be vulnerable and honest with themselves and their circle of trust can generate these consequences. Narcissism is one of the biggest poisons of modern society. It is impossible to be selfless while also being a narcissist. Social media has grown to be a platform for self-promotion and self-idolization. This is not sustainable for a growing or developing society. The desire to become a YouTube star or an Instagram influencer requires some level of self-reflection and thoughtfulness. As a society, we must think about what we truly value and display a message that reflects it appropriately. If we have narcissism as a valued trait, we are promoting a culture that values putting oneself above others. This is not suitable for generations of youth easily influenced by what is shown on social media. Social media can be used as a platform for good if it highlights the positive achievements and work of others. We are in control of our digital footprint, let’s use it for more than a platform of self-idolization and affirmation.

4. Take risks and overcome fear. The brain will validate all beliefs whether they are fact or fiction. Fear is the brain attempting to protect itself from a threat or form of danger. When fear arises, people naturally look towards leadership to provide an example or administer guidance on how to overcome it. As a leader, it is important to evaluate whether the presence of fear aligns with accomplishing the mission. If fear prevents the completion of the mission, then put it to the side and do the task anyways. If fear is present because of something that could be detrimental to the mission or the team’s goal, evaluate the fear more deeply and decide whether it is a legitimate source of danger. Take the risk if it is for the greater good of the team and its purpose. A great leader must possess the ability to make difficult decisions with limited information, under varying time constraints.

5. Respect everyone & everything. Selfless leaders NEVER forget to say please and thank you! Respect is reflected in all interactions…from how we treat our roommates, significant others, and parents, to how we interact with people who have nothing to provide for us. A selfless leader is constantly evaluating their ability to relate to others in ways that place importance on their needs and priorities. Giving each member of the team continual attention (asking how their personal life is going/what they need to perform their job better/where they feel left out/ etc.) is one way a leader can build the necessary experience to create an atmosphere of dignity and respect. Most importantly, a selfless person takes to heart the words of Cecil F. Alexander, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all.” This means living in a manner that is respectful and sustainable to the earth, its animals, and its landscape. A few ways to foster this type of environment are to ensure there is a communal understanding of where our food comes from and the sacrifices made to enjoy it, observe nature in its purest form, minimize waste, and plant a tree or two. Maintaining awareness of the impact our way of life has on the earth and its components is a necessary part of being a respectful and conscientious human.

6. Do not take anything for granted. Selfless leaders are not entitled to anything. They count their blessings every morning and express gratitude in the way they do things and how they interact with others. There is no legitimate excuse for ingratitude. People often get caught up trying to make their lives better that they forget how beautiful it already is, how much they’ve already been given, and that somebody else would trade places with them in a heartbeat. A selfless individual doesn’t go about their day waiting for better circumstances or regretting their past, they give thanks constantly for their present blessings and make the most of them. They do not wait for tragedies or unfortunate circumstances to realize that all they will ever need to be happy is right in front of them. They recognize that it is a privilege to be alive and healthy. There are many people who have made the ultimate sacrifice and are continuing to put themselves out there to ensure the well-being and safety of our country.

7. Have an intrinsic desire to help others’ paths. When you can help somebody responsibly, and it is for the right reasons, you should do it. The right human thing to do is to help others on their paths. Whether you are in the position to dictate somebody’s future, or whether you see somebody in passing, the immediate impact being friendly and respectful has on others is not easily recognizable. Personally, I will always be thankful for my coaches and teachers who have gone out of their way to help me pursue my dreams. I would not have the opportunities I do today if it weren’t for the help of my leadership and their belief in me. Strive to be the person that can only provide good to somebody else’s path. If it is impossible to provide good, then provide nothing. Intentionally causing damage and wishing ill on others will just make society worse. The more we give, the more we receive.

All leaders share common traits, but the truly selfless exhibit these seven consistently and exceptionally well.

While it is difficult to be selfless in an age where social media brings about tremendous narcissism (youth grow up idolizing/dreaming of becoming YouTube stars or Instagram models), there are still plenty of selfless leaders all around us. Our parents, coaches, teachers, healthcare workers, janitors, bus drivers, truck drivers, pilots, military members, farmers, cooks, scientists, engineers, astronauts, anybody working in public service…the list goes on. Any job or action that makes somebody else’s life better is honorable; there is tremendous honor in service.

I encourage everyone to reflect on the numeral sacrifices made on our behalf. Is the way we live selfish or selfless in nature? It is on us to squash laziness, to quit complaining, to stop looking for excuses, and to get serious about using this short time we have as effectively as we can. This is the only chance we have in legitimately honoring those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Everyone has the power for greatness. Not for fame…but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

-John F. Kennedy.

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