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Leadership as Selflessness

With the upcoming second inauguration of Barack Obama, I’ve been thinking a lot about the general phenomenon of leadership.  I am convinced that ethical leaders display deep selflessness and an absence of the two deadliest of Pope Gregory the Great’s “seven deadly sins” – pride and envy. 

The Jewish philosopher and mystic, Spinoza, claims that pride is a “species of madness” because it leads us to think that we can accomplish all things.  The fundamental psychology of pride is that it produces a distorted view of self and the world.  Pride is about self-absorption, excessive self-esteem, inordinate self-love, and egregious self-evaluation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pride as “an unreasonable conceit of superiority… and overweening opinion of one’s qualities, talents, and abilities.” 

In effect, what pride does is to strip the ability of a person to be objective, to make sound judgments, to be critical. Pride is an excuse for excess, a roadblock to moderation, and a stairway to arrogance.  Pride, says poet and Trappist monk Thomas Menton, robs us of our humility and our basic concern for objectivity, because we are constantly focused on self.  For Thomas Aquinas, pride is more than narcissism; it is the “distorted desire to be exalted.”  This desire, suggests Aquinas, leads to an exaggeration of our ability and rights and contempt for the ability and rights of others.  For Aquinas, pride is the beginning of every sin, and, by his reckoning, the “queen of them all.”  Pride leads to complete “selfishness,” and to the total abandonment of the concept of “selflessness.”

If pride is the queen of the seven deadly sins, clearly envy is her lady-in-waiting.  Envy may be the most pervasive of all the sins. Envy is both a positive and a negative part of the human condition.  It figures in all of our interactions with others.  It is a part of our competitive nature as well as of our contemptuous feelings toward those who seem to be or to do better than us.

Envy is not just about wanting, desiring what others have. Envy is about resenting the good things others have.  Envy is not just desire.  It is the inordinate desire for that which belongs to another – whatever that might be.  To be envious is to covet, to be deeply angry, and to harbor hostility, malice, and hatred.  In effect, when the envious person sees someone of greater good fortune, his or her response is: “Why not me?  Why this person, instead?”  To deeply envy another means: “I want your life!”  – and – “I hate you for having it.”  Immanuel Kant argues that envy is an “abominable vice, a passion not only distressing and tormenting to the subject, but intent on the destruction of the happiness of others.”  Building on Kant, philosopher John Rawls argues that envy is an antirational sentiment that is socially dangerous because it diminishes the possibility of achieving fairness and justice between individuals. Envy, says Rawls, “is a form of rancor that tends to harm both its object and its subject.”

I believe that “genuine” leaders display deep selflessness and an absence of overweening pride and envy.  Genuine leaders put their cause, their purpose, their calling, before themselves.  They live, as Ignatius of Loyola suggested, “a life for others.”  However, this does not mean that they are saints.  Their lives, like those of all of us, display flaws, momentary lapses, and episodes of self-indulgence.  Despite this, however, their focus remains fixed on concepts, issues or communities beyond themselves. 

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