Jurgen Klopp, outgoing manager of Liverpool FC, is arguably one of the most famous and universally popular proponents of selfless, servant leadership. His farewell speech at Anfield last weekend was typical of his style, pushing others forward ahead of himself, culminating in him leading the crowd in a new chant for next season, featuring the name of the manager replacing him, Arne Slot. That said, he was also visibly moved by the sound of thousands of fans singing out his own name for several minutes, and in that moment, it was possible to see the very clear, healthy tension to be found in leadership between selflessness and self-assurance. While great leaders elevate others, they must also possess an innate sense of self-belief, self-confidence and even, on occasion, selfishness.

I recognise this in myself too, as well as in the many successful and high performing leaders I work with. I am proud of the company I have built with colleagues, starting from nothing to become a thriving organisation with a bright future, although what really drives me isn’t the commercial success of the business but knowing that we’re making a difference and having a positive effect on our clients. The selfless joy to be found in helping others succeed is greater than the selfish benefit I personally derive, but both play their part.

This balance between self-belief and selflessness is also inherent in the day-to-day responsibility of leading a team. Even when lifting others up to succeed, a leader must first set out their vision and unite their team behind a purpose, essentially putting themselves and their values front and centre.

A leader who isn’t personally invested in the success of their team cannot be an effective figurehead and their leadership will have a hollow ring to it. Leaders must lay themselves on the line, knowing that the buck stops with them if things go wrong, and in order to do so there has to be a selfish element to their commitment to success.

As we observed in this blog on servant leadership, the concept of a servant-leader dates back to 1970, when Robert K Greenleaf wrote, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong… The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The use of the word “shared” here is a clue to the balance between self-belief and selflessness. As Greenleaf continued in his essay, “The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

This, to me, is the crux of it. Great leadership is indeed all about the “shadings and blends” as we adapt to every situation, weigh up the pros and cons of each decision and sometimes have to make the least bad choice.  

It is humans’ innate selfishness that has led to us becoming the most dominant species on the planet, but when we get the balance right between that self-centred belief in our own abilities, and a selfless desire to see others shine, we collectively benefit the most. Like a beautifully tuned guitar string, when the tension is perfect so is the music we create.

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