Put Self on the Shelf

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
-Martin Luther King

The culture in North America supports the familiar adage “look out for number one”. In being so self-consumed, we often ignore the needs of others, and paradoxically, overlook a prime source of our own happiness, satisfaction and effectiveness.

Imagine what would happen if we shifted our concern from ourselves to others. What if every time we looked in the mirror, instead of seeing minor physical flaws in need of costly repairs, we saw a true servant of others? What if we shifted from an assumption of entitlement to an assumption of servitude? The outcome would be a literal miracle: A world with unprecedented compassion. Through putting one’s “self on the shelf”, a most interesting paradox would emerge—the achievement of a level of personal satisfaction, happiness and effectiveness far beyond what is possible by “looking out for number one”.

Here is another aspect of this paradox: Recent research on how people deal with economic and business crises clearly shows the following—those who somehow rise above the human tendency to think about themselves, and instead think and act in ways to help others, wind up serving themselves in the process. They quickly become the people who others need, respect and want to be around for the long haul.

A CEO Sees the Light

I have witnessed many examples of the “self on the shelf” concept in life and in business. In my twenty six years as a management consultant, I have coached many CEOs representing a wide range of companies and industries. The concept of “servant leadership” often comes up; that is, the notion that the most effective leaders are typically humble individuals who see their primary role as serving others, in other words, putting their “self on a shelf”. In my experience, when business leaders have the courage to transform their thinking and, subsequently, their behavior in these ways, breakthrough changes occur in their relationships as well as in measurable business results.

One CEO with whom I worked was a highly ineffective manager. He verbally abused senior executives to the point where several had quit and others were in a constant state of upset. Not surprisingly, these relationship issues had a negative effect on business, putting the entire company at risk of collapse.

With coaching, this CEO learned to shift from a micromanager with a “results at all costs” posture to a leader committed to building powerful relationships with the people around him. He became as interested in the success of those people he managed as in his own success. As a result, he enjoys a newfound level of trust with those he manages, and his company’s bottom line has set new records.

A Lesson from the Slums

A vivid demonstration of putting “self on the shelf” is the story of David Neeleman, former CEO of JetBlue Airways. When David was about 20, he participated in a church mission trip to serve the poor in an underprivileged area of Brazil. Most surprising to him was how happy he felt during his stay. He came to realize that his primary contentment came from serving others, essentially diverting attention away from himself. Neeleman’s Brazil experience is reflected in JetBlue’s down-to-earth, egalitarian culture, where caring, respect for others and understanding of others are hallmarks of that culture.

In a nutshell, good news abounds when we put our “self on the shelf”. Not only are those around us influenced favorably, but we open ourselves up to an unprecedented level of personal happiness and effectiveness. When we serve others, we profoundly serve ourselves as well.

If you would like to have a complimentary discussion with me on how “Put Self on the Shelf” might apply to you or your team, please call or email me: 630-673-4254 or contact Al via email.