What is a good leader? One who can inspire committed followership and an engaged, energised team effort toward achieving a vision. Generally a vision that makes this world a better place albeit even in a small way — hence the term ‘good leadership’ and not just ‘leadership’. Because leadership, as history has shown, does not necessarily mean an engagement that leads humanity forward. Studies have sought to identify and unpack those attributes that differentiate good leaders, from just ‘leaders’. These qualities include authenticity, servant leadership, vulnerability, emotional intelligence, values-based leadership and empathy inter alia.
Supporting the CEO of a large global FMCG company, I got to observe various leader traits at Board level very closely. At the time, selecting a topic for my MBA research proposal, I wanted to know the answer to this question: What single trait distinguishes those leaders who leave a lasting positive impact on those they lead, from those who don’t? The answer that came to me was ‘Self-Love’. Not the ‘look in the mirror and say positive affirmations to yourself’ kind of self-love, but the highest, grandest expression of being human that we can reach. At the time, both the meaning of self-love and its potential impact on leadership, had never been researched in the academic world before. The results were both incredible and seemingly obvious.
We think that the problem with leadership is that leaders have too much self-love. In reality, the challenge facing most leaders is that they don’t love themselves very much at all. As one senior executive said to me: “Where do we ever learn it?” From parenting to the schooling system, we are often taught that our self-worth comes from what we achieve, not from who we are. And so life becomes a relentless struggle to prove self-worth through external attainment, with an inner critic that never switches off. The irony is that self-love is often confused for narcissism and selfishness which are opposite in nature. Narcissists gain their sense of self-worth from external reflections, for example, through wealth, fame, power, looks and so on. For example, Hitler needed to feel a sense of superiority over others to shore up his weak inner self-worth. It goes hand in hand with selfishness, where leaders look to benefit themselves at the expense of their followers and the greater whole. And we can list many examples of that. But Nelson Mandela and Gandhi? Absolutely content in who they were and focussed on delivering their mission to do good in the world. Less distortion in their leadership from a fragile sense of ego. And the love, respect and commitment that such leaders earn from their followers is enduring. Can a leader really be authentic and serve selflessly without a healthy degree of self-love? Many leaders say not.
And it makes sense. Because how can you be authentic if you don’t love yourself? And would a leader really develop and nurture top talent if he is insecure in himself? Can a leader put aside her own interests to decision-make in a way that is not at a cost to the organisation, if her primary thought driver is narcissistic in nature? As humans we have a great range of intelligences. One of these is the ability to pick up whether a leader really does care for us or not. And if a leader cannot love himself first and foremost, can he truly love others? People go through the fire for a leader that loves them. Because they trust such a leader. It unleashes the very highest levels of productivity.
The Biblical verse ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ has a deeper meaning than we might realise. Vedanta philosophy which reveres the divinity of true self-knowledge implies that when you know who you truly are, psychological insecurities are resolved. Because we can’t love ourselves if we don’t know who we are. If we think that we need to be more and do more to be worthy, then our actions are taken with a distorted motive, and not to truly serve. The cost to organisations of low self-loving leaders shows up in destructive decision-making, high attrition and team cultures of fear and poor innovation.
Low self-love is a source of great suffering for many leaders. Yet healthy self-love is more rare than we may realise, as many psychologists will attest to. So it is useless to hide the topic in the leadership world for fear of shame. It’s time we spoke about it.
This article is based on the book Self-Love: The Authentic Path to Conscious Leadership (by the writer) and the published corresponding journal articles below.
Maharaj, N., & April, K. (2013). The power of self-love in the evolution of leadership and employee engagement. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 11(4), 120-132.
Maharaj, N., & April, K. (2013). Self-love & leadership: Tapping the heart of employee engagement. Ashridge International Research Conference 3 (‘Multigenerational Challenges: Integrating Younger and Older Ages in Managing the Organisation’). Ashridge Business School, England, UK, 19th-20th July 2013.