What leading a team taught me about self-centricity.
We’ve all boarded an airline to hear the flight attendant rattle on about the safety protocols. Seat belts, emergency exits, etc. You know the drill. I typically hop on Twitter, but there’s always one message that snaps my attention back to the attendant: “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.”
Why do I find this valuable? Because it’s a tangible reminder for people to take care of themselves before helping others, to be self-centered.
I learned about self-centricity when I first became a manager. I was exhausted from working 80+ hour weeks and frustrated that my employees weren’t as obsessive as I was. I was on the fast-track to burnout. Trying to solve everyone else’s problems and constantly be available wasn’t sustainable. A mentor of mine broke out the airplane metaphor and explained the difference between self-centricity and others-centricity, and how making some changes in my leadership style would improve the team’s performance and my well-being in one fell swoop. I was totally on-board.
To be self-centered is to prioritize your own needs and wellbeing before allocating your energy to other people or problems. The idea is that you’re more productive, happy, and energized when you invest time in your own self-satisfaction. This is very different from being selfish, where you exclusively prioritize yourself, with no intent to invest meaningfully in other people.
Self-centricity vs. others-centricity
Most new managers believe the best way to win a team’s dedication is to be omnipresent as a problem-solver and inspiration engine. They do everything they can to make the employee successful, and in the process lead the team in the wrong direction. Overzealous managerial support leads to enablement, disengagement, and frustration. These managers are others-centric.
As a manager matures, however, he realizes that the best way to sustainably build a team and culture is to create boundaries between his time and individual requests for help; to be self-centered. A self-centered leader:
- clearly communicates expectations and holds people accountable who don’t meet the standards.
- is present and strong over long periods of time. She’s dependable.
- exudes confidence.
- answers questions with questions, encouraging the other person to think for herself.
This characteristic isn’t only true in leadership. How often do you find yourself saying yes to a party you don’t really want to go to? Or listening to your friend babble on about her boyfriend for the hundredth time and realizing she’s never asked you about your relationship?
Others-centricity is pernicious. It saps our energy and leaves relationships frayed because we feel out of equilibrium with our own needs. So we unexpectedly snap at that friend or start ghosting them altogether.
The key is to know what we need to feel fulfilled and energized, and to hold the line when people inevitably push on our boundaries.
I learned the hard way how to become more self-centered, at the detriment of my early employees. Let’s save you the growing pains.
Know your personal values
To become self-centered, it’s important to start by identifying what you want to get out of life. From the get-go we’re all given a set of societal expectations. It’s generally called the American Dream. It goes something like this:
- Go to college and get a degree.
- Get a stable job that pays your bills.
- Find a suitable partner and get married.
- Go on vacation once a year.
- Have kids.
- Teach them to do the same thing.
The problem is, when we listen to all the inputs, we start living by a predetermined script that may not align with our goals in life. When we live by others’ expectations, it slowly erodes our independence and freedom of thought. You may not even realize it’s happening until you wake up one day dissatisfied with your life, asking “How did I end up here?”
Getting on the path to self-centricity is simple. Start by outlining your personal values. For reference, here are mine:
- Fitness of mind, body, and spirit – I focus on my personal well-being to stay healthy and grounded no matter how chaotic life becomes.
- Learning through coursework, reading, and conversations – I pursue education and development across a variety of personal curiosities. Psychology, philosophy, and business are some of my core interests.
- Dynamic adventures – I regularly do things outside my comfort zone to challenge myself physically, mentally, spiritually, and intellectually.
- Entrepreneurship – I own my outcomes both positively and negatively. I build teams and systems from scratch to accomplish goals.
- Quality time with friends and family – I invest in my tribe with my time and energy.
Once you identify your personal values it becomes much easier to draw lines in the sand around your time and energy expenditure. As an example, since I value my physical health, staying out until 3am drinking with my friends is in direct conflict with my values. Therefore, it’s less painful for me to say no to such a seemingly fun time.
Leadership has taught me that it’s also important to set team values so my employees clearly understand the expectations I have for them. I can point to our values as a north star for how to behave. These were our team values at Untappd:
With these expectations clearly defined I didn’t need to react to every employee’s questions or concerns as a unique problem to be solved by me. I actively encouraged them to behave in accordance with our values. This preparation was critical for me to buy back my own time and energy.
Resist the impulse to advise
I’ve always had a tendency to offer unsolicited advice when people came to me with a problem they’ve experienced. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized most of the time people just need to vent and can take care of their own shit. My need to be helpful, right, and omnipresent drained me mentally and emotionally.
A good rule of thumb is to listen for the sake of listening and not to offer guidance unless it’s specifically requested. Not only does that free up your mental capacity for your own challenges, but it also endears you to your friends who never asked for your input to begin with. Voila.
Tip: when you’re wondering whether you should give input or not, ask questions. Asking the right questions can help identify areas that the person may want your guidance.
Again, being self-centered isn’t the same as being selfish. When the chips are down and someone truly needs help, I’m there in a heartbeat. But I’m careful to discern between someone needing help and lacking the confidence to make decisions on their own.
It’s up to you to decide what gets your attention. Prioritize what really matters, and cut out the noise.
Set strong boundaries
Once you’ve identified your personal values and have practiced resisting the urge to leap into other people’s chaos, it’s critical to set strong boundaries for yourself. These are the fences you put up around your mental and emotional presence.
From a personal standpoint, these can be steadfast rules related to your personal values. For example, making the decision not to drink alcohol on weekdays. Professionally, it can be as simple as not participating in meetings that don’t have a clearly defined agenda.
When you set these boundaries, it’s critical to hold your line. If you breach the boundaries you’ve set for yourself, you signal that you’re wishy-washy and lack discipline.
In Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, ‘Boundaries for Leaders’, he says, “Good boundaries, both those that help us manage ourselves and lead others, always produce freedom, not control”.
His point is that by setting and ruthlessly prioritizing boundaries for ourselves, we grant the freedom to operate without needing to respond to every single input.
What do Will Smith, Jocko Willink, and David Goggins all have in common? They all preach the importance of maintaining discipline in trying times. In the context of self-centricity, this means adhering to your values and boundaries with grit.
As mentioned earlier, bending your own rules deteriorates their validity. Doing what you say you’re going to do garners trust. Trust breeds influence. Influence begets more influence. Having influence opens more social and professional doors. It also gives you informal leadership amongst peers and employees.
Having influence is a good thing and it comes on the back of being self-centered. This may seem counterintuitive – the more I focus on myself, the more influence I have with others? Absolutely.
People want to follow people who have clear values and goals for themselves. They trust those who set expectations and stick to their own morals.
The only way to develop influence is through consistency, which is doing the little things every day no matter what challenges arise. This grit is self-discipline.
You don’t have to be a zealot
Self-centeredness is just a rule. There are times where it’s okay to break the rules. If your childhood friend is in town on a Tuesday night, it’s ok to get a couple drinks with her.
The most important thing is that you can look yourself in the mirror and feel good about the decision to bend your rules, so long as you’re not rationalizing your behavior. Just stick the course and recognize you’re in this for the long haul. If you don’t consistently put your best interests first, who else will?
Being self-centered is a gift that deserves to be cherished. It’s your way of showing the world that your values are important and that you’re going to do what’s best for yourself, based on nobody’s expectations but your own.
As a leader, maintaining self-centricity grants you the flexibility to teach people how to perform without being beholden to answer every question and solve every problem. As a friend, it gives you the space to hear people out without carrying their baggage yourself. It’s like a breath of fresh air.
It takes a lot of work to become, and to stay, self-centered. Start by identifying your personal values, then set strong boundaries and hold the line. If you don’t give yourself that respect, you can’t get frustrated when other people don’t give it to you.
Just as the flight attendant beckons you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others, make sure you’re standing on solid ground before you stretch yourself too thin.
What is Beanie & Blazer?
Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.
Want more content like this?
Follow my Twitter feed to get bite-sized snippets about performance and mindset.