The Sacrifice of Leadership

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

Leadership, as defined by Oxford English Dictionary: 1.the action of leading a group of people or an organization. 2.the state or position of being a leader.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a leader. No matter where you look today, authentic leadership seems to be in short supply. Sure, there are lots of “bosses” and narcissistic loud mouths out there but what I struggle to see, in business, politics, and life, are true leaders who bring us together, inspire us to achieve great things, and bring out the best in us.¹

There is a common misconception that leadership is all about the position, perks, and power that come with a title. The desire to be in charge is rooted in the essence of human nature. Everyone wants to be in charge and tell the others what to do. We all want to ensure that we are fed first, that our families are safe, and that we survive no matter what. This, however, isn’t leadership; it’s mere selfishness. True leadership requires sacrifice, humility, and a commitment to a higher cause. Leadership doesn’t come from a title, cap table, or expectation; it comes from within.

The truth is that leadership requires sacrifice. It’s painful, costly, and often thankless. It requires selflessness, not selfishness. Let’s remind ourselves of what leadership is all about.

There is no success without sacrifice.

First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that success is strongly tied to sacrifice. Life is a series of trade-offs, one thing for another. Every person who has achieved any success in life has made trade-offs, or sacrifices, to do so. Skilled workers dedicate four or more years in college to get the tools they’ll need before embarking on their career. Athletes sacrifice countless hours in the gym and on the field preparing their bodies to perform at the highest level. Parents give up their free time and sacrifice hobbies in order to raise their children.

The sacrifice of leadership is putting others ahead of yourself. It’s doing what is best for the team, the organization, the greater good.

You’re the first to sacrifice and the last to be rewarded.

It’s probably important to establish the difference between leadership and ownership. While they’re often grouped together, especially in business, they’re starkly different. Ownership implies that there is a right to return on efforts and investment, plain and simple. As an owner, you have a moral right to the fruits of a team’s labor. However, being an owner doesn’t mean you’re a leader; it usually means you’re an investor. Big difference.

Leadership is about doing what it takes to drive a team towards a greater goal, whether it be a social mission or desire to maximize the returns. Real leaders put these goals above all else and are the first to sacrifice when times get tough. Of course, this is often easier said than done. When cash is needed, who is the first to forgo salary to raise the capital? When an unforeseen circumstance pushes the organization towards collapse, who is turning over every stone and making the hard decisions to keep the ship afloat?

The logic behind this is simple: leaders eat last, not first.

Leaders have to love their company, just as a parent loves a child. If you and your family were trapped on a desert island with limited food, you’d feed your children first without question. The same logic applies to leading a company.

Failure belongs to you, success belongs to your team.

There’s a strong temptation to run away or place blame on others when things go poorly. Often, this blame is fully justified. People make mistakes, let you down, and occasionally act in bad faith. Good leaders, however, know the difference between blame and accountability. As the steward of the ship, every failure is your failure. True leaders don’t have the luxury of blaming others. Instead, they own every failure and work tirelessly to fix problems no matter the source.

Just as leaders must lay claim to all failures, they must also recognize that success belongs to their team. This may seem counter-intuitive. Why would you take the blame for things you didn’t do and credit successes to others?

The answer is simple. Leadership, like parenting, is about something larger and more important than tallying wins and losses. It’s about guiding a group of people towards achieving a goal bigger than themselves. It’s not about ego. Good leaders serve those they are responsible for, no matter what. Self-promotion and credit-mongering is a sign of weakness, not strength.

You are part of the team and the team is part of you.

The truth, however, is that you should naturally become part of your team. In the end, the success of the team becomes your success. When children become happy, thriving adults, the parents share the glory of the success even though they owned every failure along the way.

Furthermore, with openness and transparency the team becomes part of your leadership. The needs of the team become apparent in your direction and decision making. The success of the team is the success of the organization, which becomes the success of the leader. In a right and just world, it is a beautiful symbiotic relationship.

Why it matters.

The weight of the world is too much for any one set of shoulders. To lead is not to dictate, boss around or manipulate. To lead is to sacrifice, to show that this is all worth it. To lead is to do what is best for the team, the organization, and to drive toward a greater good. To lead is not to be all powerful, to lead is to constantly give support and, in return, be supported.

[1]: I am lucky enough to have spent the past two years working for an exceptional leader, especially during a time when leadership was needed most. Most of what you’re about to read is part reflection of all the great things I experienced first hand in contrast to the many failures I saw in the world around me.