Rediscovering Leadership: Service Versus Self-Interest

Rediscovering Leadership: Service Versus Self-Interest.



Throughout time, leaders who have exhibited the proper kind of custodianship—that is, leaders who have sought service over self-interest—have been held in high regard. People have gladly looked to them for direction and guidance in times of indecision, turmoil and trouble.

Late American newspaper commentator Walter Lippmann, in his syndicated column Today and Tomorrow, defined leaders as “the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”

Custodian. The word means a keeper, a guardian or a caretaker. It is a proactive word that implies action on the part of the bearer. Custodians hold something in trust on behalf of others. Custodianship does not imply behavior motivated out of self-interest.

A custodian, then, is an individual who upholds what is best for all people, even if it may not be in his or her own interest to do so. A custodial role must be approached as a temporary role, preserving something greater than the self—principles of enduring and lasting value. This embodies an attitude that focuses on the task at hand and not on what the leader may gain from the position. It implies a caring and concerned relationship between leaders and followers; it implies individuals motivated by their constituents’ best interests.

This idea seems at odds with what we see happening around us. In all too many arenas, we see leaders holding nothing in trust for those they purport to serve, instead merely advancing their own ideals and hopes. It is often difficult to tell whether our leaders are serving themselves or us. And it is all too common to find leaders simply helping themselves to privilege, prosperity and power. Mismanagement, deceit, greed and from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire problem solving all beg the question, Where are our leaders leading?

True leadership is and always has been a selfless action. It involves taking yourself out of the picture and considering the needs of others. It is a way of thinking that takes other people into account even when your own needs are pressing. It asks what is right or best in the wider interest. Few would doubt the need today, in this respect, for more leaders like Cincinnatus and George Washington—leaders who will complete the job they are asked to do without regard for themselves, and who will lead rather than merely registering the collective will of the people.


Clearly leadership is an issue that affects all of us. Not only are we impacted by it, but we are also called upon to exercise it. Whether we are involved in leading government or business; guiding young minds; leading a family, a sports team or a committee; organizing a dinner, a class project, a carpool or a household; or just standing for what is right—everyone has a leadership role to play. We are each thrust into many different leadership roles again and again throughout our lives. We are each called upon to be custodians of what is right and good, lasting and of value, for those in our care.

When we are called upon to lead, what kind of custodian we are will depend greatly on what we understand a custodian to be, how we think about other people, and how we determine what is right and worth holding in trust.

The word custodian, in this context, is the same as the word steward as it is used in the Bible and throughout history. A custodian or steward watches over that which is placed in his or her trust by the one who owns it or for those who will benefit by it. Stewardship is a service performed for others. It is not about ownership or control. It is not a technique. It is who and what the leader is. It is an attitude—a state of being—a way of looking at the world. But it is not the passive, hands-off leadership that some have attributed to this way of thinking. It is a component of leadership without which leaders cannot fully function.

It means not only maintaining the vision of and faith in ideals, beliefs and hopes, but also living those values as a model and example for others to follow. It means raising the sights and holding the focus of those we lead so that they are empowered to reach their potential. It means enabling people by getting the roadblocks out of their way and often out of their thinking. To do this, of course, the leader must visualize the big picture at all times and hold the course for the benefit of all.


This nouveau stewardship, as we will refer to it here, has as a guiding principle the belief that people have the knowledge and the answers within themselves.   As such, there is no need for a leader to manage other adults—no need to teach others how to think, behave or conduct themselves. While this sounds very  appealing, democratic, liberating and almost mystically primal, it is naïve. We know from experience that people do not always act in their own best interest, much less that of others.

To suggest that this approach is naïve might sound arrogant in a society that has placed personal knowledge in higher esteem than external guidance. As we see the structures and institutions that have traditionally provided us with external guidance dissolving—family, schools and religion—the desire to believe that we are our own best source of wisdom and will act accordingly is strong. Theoretically, it would seem to make sense. Practically, however, it has never worked in any sustainable way. Studies have shown that we all take our cues not from the realities of the environment but from our own biases, desires, perceptions and distractions. A function of leadership, then, should be to help followers create a more accurate and constructive view of reality by painting the big picture.


What is critical to the leadership process and its success is where the values come from that determine these boundaries. They can’t come from a single individual. Nor can they come from the collective whole. Where do we get the ideals, the beliefs and the permanent hopes that Lippmann wrote of and that define the boundaries—those guides that mold and shape us?

George Washington believed that those values and boundaries came from God. In his first inaugural address he asserted that “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained” (emphasis ours).

Again, truly effective boundaries must come from something outside of ourselves. An effective leader has an agenda designed to produce results, but is guided by a core of values that come from outside and not from within. This process is maintained by means of the leader’s integrity—his custodianship of those values.

Stressing the need for integrity to an outside core of values in the performance of proper leadership, John Adair, visiting professor of leadership studies at the University of Surrey and Exeter in England, stated: “Although it is impossible to prove it, I believe that holding firmly to sovereign values outside yourself grows a wholeness of personality and moral strength of character. The person of integrity will always be tested. The first real test comes when the demands of the truth or good appears [sic] to conflict with your self-interest or prospects. Which do you choose?” (Effective Leadership).

Perhaps it is time to apply those “eternal rules of order and right,” those “sovereign values,” to the leadership roles we perform at every level in life. Even everyday, mundane activities are opportunities to demonstrate and illustrate the values and beliefs for which we must be custodians. If each of us works to uphold such values, the element of empowerment is introduced into our lives: every person becomes in some sense a leader, rather than only those over us who provide us with direction and instruction.

The Being who created us is the ultimate source of the values we must demonstrate to function effectively. In His Word He teaches us how to serve, how to look after each other, how to esteem others more highly than ourselves, how to teach—in other words, how to lead. The Bible is where we will find the guidelines we seek to steer a course through this complex age. We would do well to become more familiar with it.

excerpts taken from Fall 2009 Issue