A desire to lead without a desire to serve?
4 min read

A desire to lead without a desire to serve?

“There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it” - William Wallace

The world will always be in need of great leaders. And there are always people who have a strong desire to lead. Many of these people will end up in leadership positions, however that doesn’t make them true leaders.

The reason: there is no true leadership without these 4 qualities:

  1. Courage
  2. Sacrifice
  3. Service
  4. Accountability

None of these qualities are cool or fancy. They don’t even depend on how smart one is. But any great leader in history had them all. They are the root system of true leadership.

Courage is the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. A true leader will face multiple difficult situations, and it will take courage to go through them. Not only that, but all the other crucial traits of a true leader (sacrifice, service and accountability) rely on having courage. That’s why courage is the base of the pyramid of true leadership.

Sacrifice, in this context, means giving up something valued for the sake of other considerations. There are many things that a true leader will have to sacrifice, but the most important one is his or her own ego.

People don’t exist to give the leader a meaning, the leader exists to serve the people. Leadership is first and foremost a position of service.

Few people are prepared to accept the accountability that goes with being a true leader. Being accountable means that you accept responsibility for the outcomes, good and bad. You don’t blame others, or the environment, because there are still things that you could have done to change the outcome. A true leader should be extremely cautious with the “buts”: “But my taxi was late”, “but I lost my luggage”, “but my Internet wasn’t working properly”. Below is an excellent video of Dropbox’s CEO Drew Houston learning this lesson:

Drew Houston

Being intelligent, being solution-oriented, being a visionary, being a great communicator, being curious, being creative… These qualities get most of the attention on the topic of leadership. And while all of them are extremely important, they are not the root system of true leadership. As David Foster Wallace said, “the most obvious, important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about”.

Why is it so common that people lacking any of them get into leadership positions? Well, it’s not so different from why in the past there were nobles that had authority and status. Things have changed a lot since then but there are still some similarities. Today things are less brutal than what they used to be, hence it’s less obvious to see. But status and titles still matter and give access to leadership positions.

However, status or titles rarely pass the test of true leadership: when given complete freedom of choice, will people follow status and titles? The answer is no. People may respect titles and status, but they’ll follow courage. There is a substantial difference between being in a leadership position and being a true leader.

People will not follow the intelligence, vision, great communication skills or creativity in their leaders in the absence of courage or service. They will respect their leaders and learn from them, but they won’t follow them especially if there is someone else with all those traits who also has courage.

Another important byproduct of a true leader is that the people working around them will raise their level of effort, engagement and performance. A leader must always be a facilitator and can never be a burden.

Red flag

A strong desire to lead without a desire to serve is a red flag. The farther these two desires move in opposite directions, the worse it is.

Leaders usually get massive financial gain, power, authority, privilege, and status. This is the outcome that everybody else gets to see.

Many people have a strong desire to be leaders because of the advantages leaders get. However, that’s a desire to be a leader for the wrong reasons and it’s not right because by focusing on the outcomes and on the personal gains, one doesn’t develop the fundamental qualities needed to be a true leader.

“There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it” - William Wallace, Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the First War of Scottish Independence

How can you tell a true leader from a leader that became one for the wrong reasons? The most obvious signals are the presence of ego or narcissism.

However, smart people will be able to disguise their ego-driven behaviors and actions as noble and as aimed at the benefit of everyone. It’s usually harder to spot the negative traits than it is to spot the absence of the good root traits. In the absence of service, sacrifice, accountability or courage, you’ll find a leader that became one for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, it may still be hard to spot the absence of any of these 4 qualities especially if you’re not working really close to this person. In this case, stop looking at the root causes for a second and instead look at the symptoms. Check how many of the people that work or worked closely with that leader, when given total freedom of choice, would choose to follow them again.