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Leadership, Philosophy

Transcending Self, Otherness, and Service: A Leadership Philosophy

Leadership occupied my interest from an early age.  In high school, I ran for class president twice—and won the vote the second time around.  Later, I joined the U.S. Army as an enlisted man, and by the age of twenty-one, I was a non-commissioned officer leading a team of ten men.  After my stint in the military, I went into private industry and worked my way into leadership positions for several companies, built my own business, and eventually made my way into the executive ranks of a Fortune 50 company.  Of course, throughout my career, leadership questions fascinated me.  However, I never explored the motives underlying my lifelong passion for leadership; nor did I connect my leadership practices with a set of principles or values—a guiding philosophy—for how I expressed my leadership in the world.  Thus, my leadership motives and values remained largely unexamined.  As Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, 1914, p. 133).  Therefore, what follows in this essay is an examination of my leadership motives, followed by a philosophy of leadership guided by self-reflection.

Examining human motivation is a fraught with complications.  Of course, Maslow (1943) offers a definitive account arguing humans are motivated to progress through a hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization or self-transcendence.  In addition, McClelland (1985) found that managers are motivated by three underlying needs, power, achievement, and affiliation.  However, Yukl (2010) suggests that authentic leaders “do not seek leaderships positions to gratify a need for esteem, status, and power, but rather to express and enact their values and beliefs” (p. 424).  Despite the similarities and contradictions, all of the constructs are useful.  Indeed, I do not believe we should reduce human motivation to simple ideas or either-or arguments; instead, I think we are complex beings with a variety of motives at play in any given situation.

For example, Eliot’s (1963) Murder in the Cathedral is instructive insofar as the narrative chronicles the inner dialogue of Thomas Becket as he reflects on his impending martyrdom.  In the play, four tempters try to persuade Becket to different courses of action.  The first tempter tries to persuade Becket to avoid martyrdom and attend to his own physical safety, reflecting the human need for safety.  Next, the second tempter wants Becket to reconcile with the King, thus gaining power, riches, and glory, with which to help the poor; reflecting McClelland’s (1985) needs for power and affiliation, and Maslow’s (1943) needs for belongingness, love, and esteem.  Subsequently, the third tempter argues Becket should join in a coalition against the King; this temptation mirrors McClelland’s (1985) need for affiliation.  Finally, the last tempter encourages Becket to pursue the glory of martyrdom as a final revenge against his tormentors, appealing to Becket’s pride and need for power even beyond the grave.

In the end, the tempters help Becket reflect on a life filled with “pleasure, advancement, and praise” (Eliot, 1963, p. 41).  Furthermore, Becket realizes he allowed his motives to twist his service to God into service of himself, arguing, “for those who serve the greater cause, may make the cause serve them” (Eliot, 1963, p. 42).  Finally, Becket reflexively chooses to transcend his self-embeddedness and choose martyrdom, but for the glory of God.  Of course, there are several provocative leadership lessons from Eliot’s (1963) telling of Becket’s journey of transcendence.  First, we learn the importance of self-reflection to lead an authentic life.  Second, Eliot reminds us of the complexity of human motives and how self-centered motives shape how we enact our leadership and being in the world.  Third, we learn to achieve transcendence by moving away from self-embeddedness towards the Divine.  Therefore, in the remainder of this essay, I follow Becket’s example and reflect my leadership motives to develop a philosophy of leadership that guides how I enact my leadership in the world.

I have always prided myself for ‘doing the right thing’ for the people I lead and the organizations I serve.  Of course, the preceding sentence betrays a sense of self-embeddedness; indeed, while I strive to do the right thing for others, I do so partially for my own pride.  In fact, most of my leadership experiences demonstrate a complex interplay of motives, for both others and me.  Of course, my need for achievement and esteem drove my early forays into leadership.  In later years, my motives became complex as career achievement became commensurate with financial rewards, greater organizational power, and recognition.  Thus, with leadership success, my needs for safety, esteem, love, affiliation, and power were irrevocably intertwined.

Of course, I justified my self-embeddedness with the inexorable logic of ‘doing the right thing’.  In fact, we can justify all sorts of behavior within that logic.  Indeed, convinced of the righteousness of our cause, our beliefs, or our values, it is relatively easy to slip into a political frame where our goals take precedence over the goals, needs, and desires of others.  Consequently, Carey (1999a) suggests that this type of self-embeddedness—where leadership serves selfish purposes—can “lead to oppression, alienation, and manipulation” (Carey, 1999a, p. 2).  Moreover, ‘doing the right thing’ hides the complexity of our entangled human motivations, disconnecting us from an important insight: our motivations are equally fears: of loss of affiliation, achievement, or power, or loss of safety, belongingness and love, or esteem.  Of course, there is no shame in reflecting on our fears, for “fear is everywhere—in our culture, in our institutions…in ourselves—and it cuts us off from everything” (Palmer, 2007, p. 54).  Thus, I admit to myself that I led from a place of fear, where my ‘do the right thing’ leadership philosophy—a.k.a. self-justification—served my own selfish need to rationalize my actions.  In fact, I suspect I committed “the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason” (Eliot, 1963, p. 44).

Thus informed, I must change my leadership philosophy—for knowledge, even self-knowledge, is like a bell we cannot un-ring.  Carey (1999a) would argue that I face the fundamental option, the choice for self-embeddedness or self-transcendence.  In choosing self-transcendence, I must “achieve a metanoia—a change of one’s entire person” (Carey, 1999b, p. 4).  As daunting as that seems, Carey (1999a) offers some practical leadership advice.  For example, Carey (1999b) proposes integrative thinking, the idea that a higher level of consciousness is possible by understanding and incorporating all of the frames—rational, human, political, cultural, and system–within which people typically operate, into a leader’s thought process.  Moreover, Carey (1999a) suggests a transcendent leader works to help his followers achieve self-transcendence as well, through empowerment, collaboration, and dialogue.

Likewise, Palmer (2007) offers similar guidance.  Indeed, he recommends leaders create an open space for dialogue around a great thing—whatever subject that may be.  Palmer (2007) calls this concept a community of truth within which leaders and followers engage collaboratively.  However, a prerequisite to building a community of truth is to lead without fear.  As such, Palmer (2007) reminds us of an ancient idea, namely to “Be not afraid”, the idea “we can escape fear’s paralysis and enter a state of grace where encounters with otherness will not threaten us, but enrich our work and our lives” (p. 58).  Furthermore, Palmer (2007) suggest we can move beyond our fears by leading from a different position in our inner landscape; for instance, hope, love, empathy, or honesty.  In a sense, leading from a different position requires me to acknowledge my fears, bracket them, and make a choice to lead from a more courageous place in my inner landscape.

Finally, transcendence requires the recognition of the interconnectedness of self, others, and the Divine.  While I am not a deeply religious person, I nonetheless recognize the importance of honoring my connection with others and othernesses—I hesitate to use the word things here—like community, society, country, Earth, Universe, and God.  Honoring the interconnectedness between self and others requires seeing otherness in the Levinasian (1969) sense, not as objects or things, but as subjects.  Indeed, I invert the subject-object relationship; hence, “I become my brother’s keeper… the object of the other, their instrument, or servant” (Rock, 2013, p. 1).  Thus, I can get closer to God through my recognition of others and the fundamental choice to be my brother’s keeper.

Succinctly put, I choose a leadership philosophy guided by continually working to transcend self-embeddedness and achieve a higher level of consciousness, recognizing that my role is to serve others in their respective journeys.  Moreover, to put my philosophy into practice, I need continually reflect on my motivations and fears, lead with courage and create an environment that honors others.

In conclusion, “as human beings we are made to surpass ourselves and are truly ourselves only when we are transcending ourselves” (Smith & Paine, 2012, pp. 234-235).  Indeed, the next chapter of my leadership journey is an exploration of my inner landscape guided by self-reflection in the footsteps of Carey, Eliot, Levinas, and Palmer.  Of course, the destination remains unclear; however, this first step encourages me because I understand better the perils of fear and self-centered motivations in a leadership context.  More importantly, the idea of transcending self and placing self in service of others resonates in my heart.


Carey, M. R. (1999a). Part four: Two options. In M. R. Carey (Ed.), Heraclitean fire : journeying on the path of leadership. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.

Carey, M. R. (1999b). Part one: Four truths. In M. R. Carey (Ed.), Heraclitean fire : journeying on the path of leadership. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.

Eliot, T. S. (1963). Murder in the cathedral. New York: Harcourt.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity; an essay on exteriority. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). Human motivation. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach : Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (10th anniversary ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Plato. (1914). The apology (H. N. Fowler & W. R. M. Lamb, Trans.) Plato, with an English translation (pp. v.). London, New York: W. Heinemann; The Macmillan Co.

Rock, R. (2013). My Personal Communication Philosophy: On Otherness and Service.  Retrieved from https://communexpressions.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/my-personal-communication-philosophy-on-otherness-and-service/

Smith, H., & Paine, J. (2012). The Huston Smith reader. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Yukl, G. A. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor


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