RLL #12: "Lazy, Selfish, and Ignorant--Human Nature and Leadership, Part 1: The Problem of Pride"

RLL #12: "Lazy, Selfish, and Ignorant--Human Nature and Leadership, Part 1: The Problem of Pride"

Caveat-- I think this is important information, but I would ask one favor of the reader: DON’T read this post unless you are willing to come back and read the next one (due out next Sunday), because this post may come across as a bit pessimistic. In order to fully understand the point, you’ll need to read next week’s, which will balance out the apparent pessimism with hope. Thank you! - Joel

Last night, my wife and I were at dinner at a relatively upscale restaurant with some friends in Birmingham. We chose this particular restaurant because our friend is the manager, and his wife (and their young son) was one of our dinner companions, and at this time of year his busy work schedule means that this is one way for them to steal a few extra minutes together. While we ate, Steve (the manager-friend of ours) came by the table a couple times to check on us and see his wife, and it was a very enjoyable dinner. Just before the end of the meal, Steve reached over and patted his son, the almost-two-year-old Baby David (as he’s known in our circles) on the back, only to discover that when he drew his hand back it was sticky and dripping with a sticky, gross, suspiciously fecal substance.

Baby David had unfortunately been having some tummy trouble in recent days, and apparently was not as “over it” as we had all believed before we went to dinner. He had had what parents refer to as a “blow-out,” with his diaper failing to contain the seemingly gravity-defying (and frankly mind-boggling) amount of little kid poop that he had expelled sometime during the meal. I’ll leave out any more details, in respect to those who don’t enjoy these sorts of stories (I enjoy telling them, probably because I’m a guy and poop jokes and stories still make me laugh at age 35 as much as they did when I was a child of 10); suffice it to say that, in an instant, Steve had grabbed the diaper bag, I had picked up Baby David, high chair and all, and without another word, we had whisked him off to the changing station in the restaurant bathroom. We got him cleaned up, changed, and ready to rejoin the group (and the high chair also got cleaned up, as well as the floor around the table…) in under 10 minutes. We were pretty impressed with ourselves, actually.

Now, it’s almost Christmas, on a Saturday night, in a busy and crowded restaurant during the height of the dinner rush. Steve was at work and had a job to do, but in the instant he realized that his son had had his blow-out, a new set of priorities had taken over. His reaction was immediate, decisive, and ultimately effective. Because he is a good manager, his section of the restaurant survived and thrived without his being able to answer questions or put out fires while we were dealing with Baby David, and because he is no longer a new father he was able to quickly deal with the poop-crisis. Steve was trained to make quick decisions about rapidly-changing circumstances to try to deal with the situation in the most expedient way possible, and in that moment, his work as a father and his work as a manager came together in a very positive way.

Unfortunately, what most people don’t realize is that Steve’s reaction was not natural or even normal. It was learned, and it was intentional, much like most aspects of leadership. The lesson here is two-fold--first, the bad news: leadership is work, either constant growth or regression, consistent learning or steady forgetting; second the good news: leadership is also learned, a set of behaviors, philosophies, and practices that can be cultivated over time. Certainly some people have specific gifts, skills, or traits that are helpful, but the truth is that everyone can learn new (or improve already-existing) leadership skills if they put in the effort.

Why is this important? Because the truth is that human beings, in our natural state, are not positive creatures. Bear with me, because this will bother some readers; I apologize in advance, but if you will read on with humility and honesty, I believe you will also come to see the truth of what I am going to say. In my classroom, I often remind my students that human beings are four things (in varying amounts and to varying degrees, yes; but we are all of these things at different times): 1) lazy, 2) selfish, 3) ignorant, 4) apathetic.

If given the choice to do work that we don’t want to do or to shirk that task in favor of some more enjoyable (but often less productive) activity, most of us will choose to shirk most of the time. We are lazy; I see this in myself most often when it comes to grading essays on tests (or stalling by doing ANYTHING else). If there is one piece of pizza left and two of us, I know that I want the piece of pizza, and if I have to I might share; we are selfish. If we are not forced to go to school, or get more training for work, or learn something new about ourselves, most of us (unless it is a subject we enjoy anyway) will simply be content to stay ignorant (n.b. Ignorant is not an insult but rather a statement of fact: it simply means “not knowing”) of whatever that information may be. And finally, until a problem touches or affects us personally, most often we are content to not care enough to stir ourselves into addressing the problem because we are apathetic. I know these things are true of me. And, I suspect, if we are all honest, we can admit that these things are true of all of us at various times.

The truth of these statements can be seen or experienced by almost everyone who has worked in a daycare, a church nursery, or an elementary school. No one has to teach children to pitch a fit, to snatch away toys, or to not want to clean up after activities. Yes, there are stories of children helping each other on the playground, or befriending someone very different from themselves. But do these stories not touch us so much in large part because they are such an exception to the general rule? No, no one has to teach children to be lazy, selfish, ignorant, or apathetic. We must be taught to be better.

We must be taught to that hard work is a virtue to be cultivated, rather than simply a duty to perform; and we must be taught that hard work doesn’t mean do the bare minimum (how many of us heard that from parents, teachers, instructors, etc.?). We must be taught to share, to let others go in front of us (rather than breaking places) in line, to hold the door for others. We must be taught that knowledge is power, that education really can change the world and our futures, and that putting in the effort to learn is always worth it in the end. We must be taught to be concerned about others, even when the issues we see may not negatively affect us personally. And, perhaps even more importantly, we must be reminded of these things over and over again, for the rest of our lives, lest we forget the simple Golden Rule of kindergarten: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As C.S. Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

What does all this have to do with leadership and pride? First, we need to recognize that every role we experience in life is either a leadership role or it is preparation for a future leadership role. As a parent, a teacher, a restaurant manager, an athlete, an employee, an entrepreneur, or anything else, we must realize that we need to consciously work on becoming better every day, even if that ‘better’ doesn’t translate to a bigger paycheck. Second, we must apply realize that our task is to help both ourselves and our audience become less lazy and more hard-working, less selfish and more giving, less ignorant and more educated (not necessarily formal education; more on that in my book!), less apathetic and more concerned about helping others. We’re all part of humanity, and therefore when one of us is affected, all of us are affected.

Third, and finally, the root cause of all of these issues is pride, or self-centeredness, or self-focus. [Here, this means only the negative aspects of pride; for a more in-depth look at this issue, please read the chapter called ‘The Great Sin’ in C.S. Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’ where he distinguishes between different meanings of the word. I strongly recommend this book for many reasons, whether a person is a Christian or not.] We want to be the center of attention, the center of our own universes, and this is not something that we have learned. We simply are that way. Until we know any better, we can’t really help it: we want what we want, and that seems the end of the matter. It is only as we get old enough to have conscious thoughts that we realize other people also want what they want, and sometimes these things conflict. That is where we run into problems because pride is also inherently competitive: it is interested not just in having its own way, but in having its own way even at the expense of others.

Just this evening I saw a child have no interest in a cracker on her plate, until her father tried to give that same cracker to another child; all of a sudden the first child demanded the cracker back and yelled when the father refused it to her. This child is under two years old, and no sane parents would teach their child this type of behavior, so we can assume this is something they are trying to address and correct in their child. This is the beginning of the child learning how to be a better person by following her parents’ leadership and teaching.

Leadership, if you recall, is the art of positively influencing the people around you to become better versions of themselves. It is crucial that we do this and do it well, and in order to do that we must first admit the problem: that we ourselves need to improve in order that we may also help others improve. We must confront the problems of our laziness, our selfishness, our ignorance, and our apathy head-on in order that we might overcome them in time and with the aid of others.

One final note: if you are not any of the four things mentioned above, then I apologize and wish you the best, and I look forward to learning from you how you overcame those things in your life. But, if you think you have never been those things, I would humbly ask you to reconsider and reevaluate: another word from C.S. Lewis to close: “If you think that you are not conceited [another word for prideful], it means that you are very conceited indeed.”

Action Step: This week, take 10 minutes to honestly evaluate your leadership and find one area where pride has negatively affected you, and commit to addressing that problem. Then email me and let me know how you did it or how I can help you. I look forward to hearing from you, and Merry Christmas!