It is not about you!

“Why would anyone want to be a leader?” This question came from a senior executive who had just gone through a series of leadership skills coaching sessions with me.

This happened as her idea of leadership shifted from what was carefully formed during the earlier years of her life, to what true leadership is with its responsibilities, price and sacrifices.

I understood where she was coming from. For many, the idea of leadership formed in our earlier years of development is probably not the true one – think about it.

If you are like me, you probably grew up with parents and older siblings telling you what to/not do. The same was true at school- class leaders were given authority to supervise the classrooms which included activities like; cleaning, role calls, reporting students who were out of line depending on their (class leader’s) perspective, and were given special treatments here and there.

Moving on after school, as a junior staff at work, I watched managers occupy bigger and better offices, coupled with greater professional perks one could only dream about. It was easy to think wow, a leadership position must surely be awesome!

With that picture, I formed an unbalanced perception of leadership. I believed that leadership is really easy, you tell people what to do, you reprimand those who do not comply with set processes and procedures, and most importantly, you get special benefits and privileges


It was not long after I rose to managerial roles in the corporate world that I realised that it was not a joke! My first shock was the amount of responsibility not only for my own performance but for the performance of my entire team.

I discovered that I was answerable for their poor performance and my evaluation as the manager, to my apprehension, determined, among other things, if employment contracts could be renewed or not. The realisation of the significance of leadership began to dawn on me.

I began to ask myself many questions; how can I equip and empower my team? How can I build a strong motivated team? And how can I increase productivity and efficiencies of my department? In view of all those questions, on several occasions I wondered, “who is serving who?”

I then discovered that my previous perception on leadership was entirely skewed. It became clear that leadership is not about me, it is all about them, my team! Contrary to the belief system my subconscious mind had adopted, I was the servant and they were being served.

The bible readers will recall Jesus demonstrating “servant leadership” principle thousands of years ago when He washed His disciples’ feet. In fact, Peter, one of the disciples objected saying, “No, you shall never wash my feet”. My guess is that Peter is like many of us, he probably was thinking a leader should not serve but be served.

How great would it be if we are taught this principle way before we hit the workforce?. For the most part, our careers are selected on the basis of “it is all about me”; which courses are marketable, which ones pay more and which one is a better leadership opportunity.

Imagine this, how much productivity would result from a workforce that has been equipped to identify problems and build solutions to make the world a better place than they found it.. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the system intentionally instilled in us a hunger to serve and not to primarily be served?

I have looked at people who have lived significant lives; they have one thing in common- service. Martin Luther King, Jr was of the view that “Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”. Nelson Mandela stood for”Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people”.

John C. Maxwell affirms the servant leadership posture shared by people who have lived significant lives; he teaches that “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Speaking at a leadership conference, Simon Sinek, author of “Leaders Eat Last“, put it this way “You are not in charge, you are responsible for those in your charge”. He believes that the primary role of a leader is to create a conducive safe environment for their teams.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the major results of having a leader whose world revolves around him/her, is an insecure environment, be it in the office, battlefield, or family setting.

Where everyone fends for him/herself instead of looking at a bigger picture. This environment will foster a tendency for staff to spend lots of energies and time doing things to protect themselves instead of reflecting on how they can improve their performance.

You will all relate if you have ever worked in an insecure environment, for example, you will find a culture of saving emails and files that will bail you out once the table turns against you. More time will be spent in writing “notes to the file” - for future reference, while doing the bare minimum required not to get fired.

It is my opinion, for the most part we simply have leaders that have not been professionally coached. It is uncommon to find someone that grows up planning to be a mean, self-centered boss. With proper coaching and intentional mentoring, a distorted leadership belief system can change. Lack of professional coaching is a recipe for poor leadership.

My desire is to contribute to building a leadership pool of individuals who are out there to make a difference; men and women that care about those they serve, who deeply understand and appreciate that leadership is not about them. Leaders who authentically ask themselves on a daily basis “what can we do to make a difference in the lives of those in our charge?”

In conclusion, let me implore you, if you don’t remember anything from this article, remember this; Leadership is about serving those who are in your charge. Leadership is not about you.

The writer is an Independent Certified Coach, Trainer and Speaker with the John Maxwell Team. Prior to this, she served as an Operations Manager and Project Specialist at United Nations Population Fund.