“If people were employed at creating heaven on earth, everybody would be happy; instead each one is creating his own heaven by creating hell for others.”
“Self-interest makes some people blind, and others sharp-sighted.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
As a business guy I most often view Life, government and politics, as well as business issues, thru a business lens.
It is fairly rare that I view business through a government prism.
And, yet, as I sat down to discuss self-interest and managing self-interest as a leader I found that using a governing prism was the most appropriate.
Self-interest sounds like it could be defined fairly simply because … well … it revolves around ‘self.’
But ‘self’ depends on who is looking in the mirror as well as whatever ‘grouping of selfs’ you would like to gather up and discuss — in other words … self interest can vary depending on where you are standing.
That said … let’s discuss self-interest from a governing perceptive. Basically, self-interest can be captured in three concentric circles:
The business version could be self, group, company … or self, company, country … or … well … you get it.
Hmmmmmmm … ‘you get it.’ I do wonder if someone hasn’t worked in a larger company or even if they have but haven’t attained some management role if they ever ‘get it’ <completely at least>. Even being in management one can decide to keep their head down, under the guise of being focused n my responsibility, and just assume someone above in management is worrying about the larger picture and larger “interests” which will either benefit me or will not benefit me.
I learned this lesson early on in my management career – once I started managing a group. When I assumed the responsibility I assumed everyone would at some point do what I had done … changed companies and got new jobs. To be clear … I didn’t assume that everyone would actually do it I just assumed they would want to do it at some point. Therefore I viewed managing people and talking with people and leading the people through the full range of concentric interest circles. Simplistically, in my head, I said “I will train you and develop you so that you will be successful wherever you go from here.” my objective wasn’t just to make my group’s ‘self-interest’ a priority but rather insure that self, group, company and industry were all aligned so that the expertise and the ‘self’ could meet interests in all places at any time.
That created some challenges.
Sometimes it created some friction <because your group was always looking at other groups wondering why they did shit you didn’t do as well as it sometimes created a slightly different bar to meet than even the company itself may have demanded>.
It always created the best version of each employee <and me I imagine>.
I say all that because no good leader will ever suggest it is all about one circle of self interest.
They know it is not only foolish but not true.
Meeting the need of each circle of interest is never trickle down or even trickle up … it is more often the three ‘circles of self’ in a line in which little balls are constantly weaving their way side-to-side … think maybe the eyes of the Cylons in BattleStar Galactica.
Meeting interests at all self-levels takes work. And most of us being managed or living in the everyday world are okay with that when it is explained.
But explaining it is important … and maybe HOW you explain it is even more important.
While people are mostly well-meaning <albeit in today’s world we would criticize the way Jesus put on his sandals in the morning> most of us truly do not care about the decision maker’s decision making process or even the decision maker’s fate and we certainly have no interest in putting ourselves into the decision maker’s shoes.
We naturally have self-interests and we weigh our own self-interests as we view the decision we will inevitably judge <prioritizing the other self interests as lower than our own but not mutually exclusive>.
You want a little of this without having to endure a little of that.
In other words … you want everything … you want to stand upon principles … you want the greater good to be served … uhm … without sacrificing anything. And, yet, we are more than willing to sacrifice some things for the greater good … economists call this “the benevolence of self-interest.”
It is too simplistic to look at people as mere ethically agnostic optimizing machines.
At the foundation of all economic theory, and behavioral theory, is the assumption that people are driven/grounded by the rational pursuit of self-interest. But, as everybody knows, people are not rational and they often act selflessly wherein things like honor, duty, love, etc. enter into the interest calculation.
When it comes to self interest, all circles that is, the evaluation does not solely reside in satisfaction of needs & wants but also in desires, purpose & welfare of others — and, yes, that includes global & country as well as individual.
I say all this because while self-interest is extraordinarily powerful it is not the end all.
And you know what?
Most of us know that in our heart of hearts.
So when a leader stands up and suggests it is all about you … and that ‘the other people’ who build initiatives and businesses which recognize the other circles of interest do not have your best interest in mind … while it sounds tasty … we know it will give us heartburn later.
Oddly enough I think of this type of false leadership as someone who is willing to put down the virtues of other people simply to bolster their own.
“We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own.
I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.”
And because I just pulled a quote from the Divergent series let me share some words in the Dauntless Manifesto:
“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”
Dauntless Manifesto <Divergent>
In a me, me, me world <or at least it sometimes feels that way these days> … in a world where if I see something like ‘no one will stand up for you but yourself’ … or … ‘the only one you can count on is yourself’ one more time … I will … well … begin to lose a little faith in humanity … this thought is something we should all wrap our heads around. Especially someone whose responsibility it is to view the three concentric circles of interest and … well … lead people through them all.
A good leader need not be brave but they certainly must have some courage – courage to tell the truth & courage in convictions.
Therefore circles of interest may actually come down to ordinary acts of courage.
Courage as in stepping in front of criticism.
Courage as in stepping in front of ‘doing nothing.’
Courage as in stepping in and doing what is right <even if it may not be the easiest thing to do>.
Pull one lever and another lever is released.
But I would argue, vehemently, that the leader who embraces the circles of interest in their interconnectedness inherently understands that separation is an illusion.
“The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation.
Things you think are separate and different are actually one and the same.
We are all one people. But we live as if divided.”
The Last Airbender
While as a leader you seek to identify with the individual as unique the underlying truth is that we are all one people who simply live as if divided. And that belief is at the core of how one manages against all three concentric interest circles as you work continuously to see that employees identify their personal success with the success of the organization and the industry itself.
Great businesses, and countries, are multifaceted and multidimensional. I would suggest inherent in that strength are natural divides between the facets and the dimensions … and natural connections between the facets and dimensions.
Business leaders know that. And they don’t fight it but rather simply figure out a way to get all the squirrels herded in the same direction.
From the outside people may only see squirrels running around aimlessly.
From the inside you see squirrels digging up sustenance and storing it up at the nest for the benefit of the future survival and prosperity.
And it all revolves around ‘circles of self interest.’
That is the challenge every leader faces in managing a business and a larger organization. And the multiple circles make it often extremely difficult to judge leadership <because we would prefer the simplicity of judging one circle not how they all coexist>.
As Montaigne said … “truly man is a marvelously volatile, various and wavering creature: it is difficult to base a stable and uniform judgement upon him.”
A good business leader juggles the circles of self interest and sometimes it is a little volatile and almost always wavering in some way. Yet, when well done and well-articulated, it is marvelous to see and offers marvelous benefits to all circles of interest <success in one begets success in another>.
What I can unequivocally state is that any so-called leader who focuses solely on one circle <your self-interest is most often the one> is not a leader … and should not be trusted.
I have little, if no, patience for a leader who suggests he/she will make all decisions based on self-interest, or what is best for the ‘kitchen table in every home’, and by doing so success will “trickle up” to all other circles of interest.
I have no patience because it is not only a lie but is ignorant of how things work … well … if you want enduring success that is.
I have no patience because, in their lie, they are creating a vision of heaven for you which, in reality, is a hell for all.