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Why Follow When You Can Lead?

Remember being a kid? Remember campaigning to be the leader so you could pick your friends or play a particular position you wanted. As kids, the motivation to lead was often merely selfish. In the workplace, selfish behavior can be devastating. Leadership doesn't come from a title, and exceptional leaders put their team and its mission first. There are many documented stories about extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice from seemingly ordinary men and women committed to a common belief in a greater good. As we have been celebrating another Memorial Day in the US, I've been thinking about self-sacrifice in leadership and doing some research. I want to share a couple of key insights about self-sacrifice with a view toward helping you achieve leadership success and significance.

Why Leadership Self-Sacrifice Matters

Leadership involves the influence of followers. Numerous studies provide evidence that self-sacrificing leaders are more influential than self-benefiting leaders. Leadership self-sacrifice is shown to enhance:

  • Intentions to reciprocate the leader's behavior

  • Feelings of team belonging

  • Intentions to give

  • Cooperative behaviors

  • Follower performance

  • Willingness to change

Leadership acts of self-sacrifice clearly are inspiring. Many stories of world-changing leaders involve a common theme of tremendous self-sacrifice.

However, not all acts of self-sacrifice have a positive impact on followers. Those most influential involve self-sacrifice that conveys the leader can be trusted to act in a way that benefits the team and its mission.

Here is a good discussion about self-sacrifice from Simon Sinek inspired by Marine Corp General Flynn's account of why senior officers eat last.

Insight 1: Cultivate High-Quality Leader-Follower Relationships

When you experience a sense of belonging and selfless love, you are more motivated to accept personal risks that benefit your team and its mission. In the Netflix series Medal of Honor, inspiring stories of heroic courage from the battlefield reveal that belonging and selfless love change everything.

President Obama speaking of Medal of Honor recipient Captain Groberg said, "on his very worst day, he managed to summon his very best. That's the nature of courage — not being unafraid but confronting fear and danger and performing in a selfless fashion. He showed his guts, he showed his training; how he would put it all on the line for his teammates."

Leaders cultivate high-quality relationships through developing enhanced self-awareness, asking followers questions grounded in genuine curiosity, offering help, and showing appreciation. Organizations can also help by monitoring relations between followers and leaders and addressing signs of unhealthy relationships.

Insight 2: Establish Goals that Benefit Your Team and the Organization

A leader's annual performance goals should clearly emphasize a direct benefit for the team and its mission. In flat organizations, "working leaders" too often have performance goals that narrowly focus on the leader's benefit to the organization.

The key is the word "and." Leadership goals need to go beyond driving individual performance "and" include the team. The following are a few high-level goal examples focusing on the leader, team, and organization.

  • Create a culture of inclusion in the organizational unit under my leadership: an environment in which every employee feels valued and has opportunities to contribute and grow.

  • Collaborate with followers to establish robust development plans; provide appropriate support (time, resources), and monitor progress to facilitate successful achievement of plans.

  • Provide followers with regular coaching and timely feedback.

  • Recognize strong performance of employees under my leadership through financial and non-financial means, both formally and informally.

  • Be open and honest in communications with employees and cascade business information in a timely manner.

Conclusion: Leadership Self-Sacrifice

Leadership self-sacrifice positively influences follower behaviors, performance, and the willingness to change in ways necessary to thrive in today's complex workplace environment.

High-quality leader-follower relationships are fundamental to creating a sense of belonging and self-less love that motivates leaders to take personal risks. Having goals aligned with team and organizational benefit encourages leaders to use their relationship influence in the best ways.

What is the real challenge for you to demonstrate self-sacrifice that communicates your commitment to the team and its mission for the greater good?


Hoogervorst, Niek (2012). When do leaders sacrifice? The effects of sense of power and belongingness on leader self-sacrifice. The Leadership quarterly (1048-9843), 23 (5), p. 883.

Shin, J., & Shin, H. (2022). The effect of self-sacrifice leadership on social capital and job performance in hotels. Sustainability, 14(9), 5509.

van Knippenberg, B. M., & van Knippenberg, D. (2005). Leader self-sacrifice and leadership effectiveness: The moderating role of leader prototypicality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 25-37.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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