Self Sacrifice

"Let us stop being selfish…to the ideas of the common good and of our existence, everything must be sacrificed." —General Jose de San Martin

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When circumstances dictate, true leaders often must disregard their own safety and comfort. Day-to-day operations do not usually require this to happen, even in the military, but it is an ideal to which all leaders must consistently strive.

In the Marine Corps there is a leadership tradition that officers eat only after all of their enlisted personnel have eaten. Operationally this is not always possible, but it is something that we always keep in mind and try to achieve. Physical deprivations are one of the many burdens of leadership. Other than eating last or less, this might also include sleep deprivation, more work, more stress and aggravation, and less time with family.

There are, however, other issues that you may have to deal with as a leader that you might consider even more insidious. A good leader typically is able to communicate gratitude and appreciation for the service of subordinates. When that same level of appreciation does not come down to the leader from that leader's seniors, then a sense of bitterness and disappointment can set in due to the lack of recognition.

For some leaders, the only reason for enduring the trials of leadership is the sense of fulfillment they receive when others tout their accomplishments. For them, the extra pay, rank, or title is secondary to the recognition. While this is not a bad thing in itself, the motivation to be a leader for glory and achievement should be at least secondary to the real reasons for wanting leadership responsibility.

A fellow leader remarked to me one day that he was disappointed that his subordinates at his last unit did not appreciate his efforts. He went on to say that they did not understand the level of personal sacrifice he made for them. I have thought a lot about that conversation since then. I have come to the conclusion that, while I understand his complaint and his hurt feelings at not having gained their sympathy, I believe he made a fundamental error in reasoning as to their motivation.

If you subscribe to Maslow's A Theory of Human Motivation, then human beings do what they do for five basic reasons, that Maslow arranges in a hierarchy. Only at the highest level of that hierarchy are people motivated by the singular purpose of doing what they do best. Maslow terms this phenomenon "self-actualization." Because they have satisfied all their needs at the other four levels, leaders who have reached this level now lead for self-fulfillment. Therefore, they do not crave the recognition from their seniors.

It's also no wonder that my friend's subordinates didn't care about his situation; they were too preoccupied with their own personal issues. Self-actualized leaders must realize that the things that motivate them often do not motivate their subordinates. Most are primarily motivated by self-interest at some level. The hard lesson to learn here is that you are often going to be mentally and emotionally alone as a leader.

Hopefully, you have chosen to be a leader for reasons that do not have anything to do with your own self-interest, or eventually you may have a hard fall. You must, I believe, for your own long-term sanity, wholly dedicate yourself to the purpose of leadership as an unselfish way to help others. True self-fulfillment only comes when you do not need to help someone, but you do it because you can. Done in this spirit, gratitude-whether from your seniors or subordinates-becomes a secondary consideration, and therefore eventually unnecessary, at least from an egotistical standpoint.

Don't worry, occasionally an enlightened fellow leader comes along, who lights the way when the path of leadership becomes dark and gloomy. It is at these times, when your sacrifices are understood by someone who has walked in your shoes, that the bonds of camaraderie make it all quite worthwhile.

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