Chief Executive Insights

Being Selfish Could be the Best Thing You Do For Your Company

Jim Collins published Good to Great in 2001. I read it around then because everyone was reading it. Its title was intoxicating. It resonated. Who wouldn’t want to know the secret to being great? I did. Its timing was great for me, too, as I was still thinking that I had a chance to do it. Become great, that is. It’s a book about differences. About what happened differently at the great companies than at the good ones. The things that led the great companies to achieve stock price growth that the good companies could only dream about.

One of those was their assessment of the CEO. They identified the common attributes present in these CEOs and were surprised by what they found. Many were introverts. Comfortable being alone and operating backstage, away from the limelight. They were the heroes of stories that they didn’t feel they needed to tell. They “displayed a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.” The leaders had monster-size ambition, but it wasn’t personal ambition. Not solely, for sure. The cause that mattered to them was the organization’s, not their own. They knew their role and what they were there to do.

Collins called them Level 5 leaders and placed them at the top of the leadership pyramid, above the competent and effective leaders. He concluded that Level 5s “build enduring greatness,” while the others essentially just get things done. Or make it all about them, like Al Dunlop or Lee Iacocca. Being selfish went against what I thought I knew about being a leader, but it turns out, it was exactly what I needed to be for my company.

In Search of Direction

Strategic Coach, The Executive Committee (TEC), and time had helped me put the Valley of Uncertainty in my rearview mirror. The uncertainty that dropped me there was reducing as each new mile clicked by. They had me nearly back on flat ground, leveled. I could finally think about climbing again. My courage and confidence were growing. The walls were coming down a block at a time. I was under the influence of a new mindset. Being exposed to new ideas. It was a grind, but a good one. Every day I walked further away from where I wanted to quit and closer toward something new, better, and maybe great.

Still, something was missing. I knew that I was on the right road, but I still seemed to be missing the mark. I felt like a running back who always wants to bounce the play outside when the huge hole is in the middle. A straight line is always the fastest way, and yet I was zigzagging. Was it a focus and discipline issue? Maybe fear. I needed a better system for hitting the right hole.

Months of searching narrowed down the problem. Direction. I’d been filling my mind with all kinds of new tools and concepts from Coach and TEC. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable. But I wasn’t being deliberate about what I needed to do to put all that stuff into action. To hit the right hole. As a result, a lot of the ideas began to pile up. Big piles of half-baked stuff in my mind. Begging for my attention. The invisible version of the ones on my desk that Robin got rid of.

Collins made it seem like Level 5 leaders were servants to their company and its mission and not themselves. That Level 5-ers put every need ahead of their own. Serving others was what made them special. Taking a back seat was their superpower. So, that’s what I did.

Selfishness Is the Answer

I missed the irony that that’s what got me into trouble in the first place. Putting myself last and my pager first. Making everyone’s present my property instead of making my future mine.

I totally missed what had to be true for the Level 5 leaders. That deep down, in a place they loved but didn’t want to talk about, Level 5 leaders were deeply and unapologetically selfish. That had to be true, I figured. Without being selfish first, they couldn’t have led their companies to achieve the results that great companies achieve. Without being selfish first, they wouldn’t have known what that future needed to look like.

I don’t know where that revelation came from exactly. Probably a by-product of what I was learning. Outside of my disappearing walls. All I knew was that I had to make another choice. A hard one. One that I fretted about for a long time. Thinking about it went against who I thought I was. The part that maintained a goodness about me. Without a new choice, it would be difficult to achieve the goal of making my future my property.

I had to get selfish.

Don’t be the Selfless Leader

Ugh. I know, it sounds horrible. But there was no other option. I had to get selfish with my ideas, with my time, with my focus, and with my attention. To know what I wanted my property to be, I had to design a structure in which I could operate selfishly.

It wasn’t lost on me that selfish can be such an ugly word. People labeled as selfish have huge egos. They’re also jerks and a whole lot of other negatives. Oh, and people hate selfish people. It’s the last thing that I wanted to be known as. It went against everything I thought to be the “right” way. The selfless, servant-leader way. It was exactly the opposite of what Collins’ book was saying about Level 5 leaders.

Although it’s what I knew I needed to be, I was scared. I knew what I needed but I still cared about what other people thought. I wanted my selfish pursuit to be a positive thing for everyone. Like self-motivated or self-confident. Having great self-esteem. I hoped that I could pull off becoming more selfish without anyone else knowing.

I wanted my selfishness to be a good thing for everyone, not just me. At its core, being selfish was about freeing up time for me to think. To get clear about how I could make a bigger difference and become more valuable to my team and my company. To create a future that was our property.

Remain Devoutly Selfish

There was no other way. I had to be operating at the top of my game. I had to know what I wanted. My thoughts, habits, health, influences, and relationships had to support the most optimal operation of me. I needed to be as fine-tuned as I could be. If I wasn’t selfishly working on that, I knew I’d be doomed to sub-excellence. Or a perpetual stay in the Valley. That just wasn’t an option.

It was a long and imperfect process. Not at all like flicking a switch. Becoming selfish was harder than I thought it would be. Some days it felt like I was going against gravity. I got used to it by taking small steps. The way you get used to most new things. Being selfish was helping me leave the Valley of Uncertainty behind while taking ownership of my property. Slowly, I began to better understand my role as an entrepreneur. About how to lead the company at this stage.

I’ve remained devoutly selfish because it works. I know it sounds weird, but I’m proud of my selfishness. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. I wouldn’t have gained the understanding or the clearness of thought. About what it takes to create a future that was my property and build a team that could make that future a reality. A team with skill sets different than mine and more complementary. The necessary skill sets. I wouldn’t have allowed mistakes to happen or failures to occur. I would have spent all my time trying to prevent those. Making prevention the lesson instead of failure the education. I would have missed the teaching moments. The progress and the reward.

Written by Mike Malatesta. For more advice on how to be successful in your business, you can find Owner Shift on Amazon.

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Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

CEOWORLD magazine Business Council Member
Mike Malatesta started his first business in 1992, seven months after being fired from a company he had dreamed he might lead one day. Over the next twenty-two years, he helped run, lead, and grow that startup, selling it for more money than he could have imagined. The creator of the How’d It Happen podcast, Mike is deep into his second startup and an active early-stage investor. His mission is to help as many entrepreneurs as he can to create companies that improve people’s lives and, maybe, the world. Mike lives in Wisconsin with his wife, Jamy. He’s active in YPO, Abundance 360, and Vistage Worldwide.


Mike Malatesta is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.