True leaders are those who sacrifice to make the group feel safe.
So says Simon Sinek in a powerful TED talk entitled “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” that he delivered in 2014. This was prior, of course, to the most recent election cycle, which, regardless of your political bent, raised many questions about the qualities of a good leader, the sense of our safety, and the very nature of the group that our leaders are elected to represent.
What if an elected official makes some members of the group feel safe, but leaves others feeling very unsafe? Is s/he a true leader? Would s/he pass Sinek’s test?
Is it possible that a group can grow so diverse and distinctly interested that no leader can accomplish the task of pleasing all of its members?
Most importantly, is there something in Sinek’s analysis that can be learned by our leaders, and ourselves, which can make us all feel more secure and possibly even mend some of the fractures that are threatening to tear our republic apart?
A true leader, Sinek posits, puts the welfare of his/her constituents first. S/he makes us feel safe with the knowledge that s/he will do everything possible to protect us. Of course we know that s/he may fail, but it is the genuine concern and sense of responsibility which gives us a sense of comfort.
Sinek provides stirring examples of military leaders and business leaders who have displayed tremendous self-sacrifice for their subordinates. He tells of an army captain who ran repeatedly into the line of fire to rescue his wounded troops. He tells of an industry titan who refused to lay off employees during the recession, and opted instead to reduce his own compensation and the compensation of every one on his staff members – better we should all tighten our belts a little, he reasoned, than that anyone should suffer a lot.
The result, Sinek explains, is that those who follow such leaders do so with incredible devotion, conviction and appreciation. They are committed to their leaders not because they are forced or threatened, but because they are grateful and inspired. They feel safe and cared for, and this culture of altruism spreads throughout the organization.
What is it then that has created this sense of belonging, commitment, and security within these structures? It is the decision of the leader to sacrifice his/herself, to place the value of each of the group’s members on an equal par with his/her own.
This is a remarkable thing to do. Its rarity in our culture of individualism and personal advancement is what makes Sinek’s examples so noteworthy and so instructive. While there have been, throughout history, these type of true leaders who have recognized that their role is to serve their people rather than to be served by them, it is more typical for those “in power” to abuse their powers and to focus on self-promotion and further aggregation of control.
Perhaps, even more commonly, we find that many leaders wield their power to the benefit of some of their constituents and not all. They serve their base or their special interests, but others who maintain less influence, or who stand outside the group with which the leader most identifies, are neglected and disenfranchised.
The true leader is the one who not only transcends his/herself, who not only surrenders his/her instinct toward self-preservation and commits her/himself to communal preservation, the true and remarkable leader is one who recognizes that his/her well-being depends on the well-being of all.
To benefit one constituency at the expense of another is not true leadership. While it is plain that there are factions that propound one course of action that is expressly opposed by other factions, the role of the successful leader is to find the solution that is satisfactory and mutually beneficial to all.
Marshall Rosenberg contends in his seminal work “Nonviolent Communication” that there are no situations in which opposing parties cannot be brought to a mutually satisfying resolution. Tremendous work must be done to achieve such breakthroughs, but the leaders we need today must have the patience, skill, commitment, and sacrifice to restore well-being and camaraderie in this fractured and divisive moment.
More important, perhaps, than the discussion of what qualities our leaders should possess, is the question of how we can develop these qualities ourselves, and how we can be the types of leaders that we desire. When we step beyond our own personal interests and perspectives, when we value the needs and views of those with whom we don’t necessarily agree, when we commit ourselves to civility and collaboration with the aim of creating a more perfect union that guarantees the safety and benefit of all its members, then we will develop and deserve the type of leaders that Sinek discusses.
In sum, we will all feel more safe and secure when we commit ourselves to sacrificing for the safety and well-being of all of those around us.
To watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk, click here or on the image above.
Marc Erlbaum, Contributor