Why this Marine vet encourages ‘selfless leadership’ at work

As the relationship between employees and employers has transformed in recent years, more focus has been placed on manager and leader effectiveness. People leaders today are asked to navigate a new world of work, with its evolved employee expectations and heightened need for empathy. According to an author with a new book on leadership—with insights developed through his time in the military—these shifts necessitate a new approach to leadership that centers on selflessness.

Ryan McCool, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and founder of McCool Leadership Development, recently published It’s Not About You on Amazon. The book details leadership lessons learned through his four years as an Aviation Logistics Officer in the Marines, after which he earned an MBA in strategic leadership. He went on to join a Fortune 50 company, where he has spent eight years as a leader in the supply chain field.

In his private sector experience, McCool says, he’s found that leadership training often “misses the beat” when it comes to helping leaders truly inspire team productivity. McCool recently spoke with HRE about how HR and business leaders can leverage selfless leadership to inspire employees to be their best.

HRE: Based on your experience, what do you think is the most important leadership factor that can help employees go “above and beyond”?

Ryan McCoolMcCool: Selflessness. By that, I mean consistent acts of selfless behavior by a leader for building trust with employees that goes beyond any reporting hierarchy. This trait happens to act in direct contrast to how humans are wired—which is to be self-interested. It’s a difficult trait to learn and requires constant practice. If a leader can fight the urge to be self-interested—and instead place the focus on their team—it will pay dividends. Whether it’s taking on extra work, giving up your front-row parking spot or even remembering the name of an employee’s ailing pet, selfless behavior inspires employees.

HRE: How did you come to recognize the value of selfless leadership?

McCool: The selfless leadership style was forged during my Marine Corps Officer training in Quantico, Va.—and solidified by my time as a line officer in the operating forces. Put simply, in order to effectively lead people, one must put their own self-interest second to that of their team. Although military situations can mean life or death, corporate leaders also carry a heavy burden. Direct managers determine things like salary, bonus, ability to get promoted, and most importantly, overall happiness of their team. In my book, I talk about the leaders in my life who have helped to put me on a path to selflessness. I then use firsthand military accounts so the reader can learn about the philosophy through engaging stories. Finally, the book explores selfless leadership style through a corporate anecdote, ensuring the principles are directly applicable to any business environment.

HRE: Beyond selflessness, what else is critical to effective leadership today?

McCool: Another selfless leadership trait featured in the book is having the courage to give difficult, constructive feedback. Some leaders don’t want to deal with the awkwardness of giving critical feedback. It makes them uncomfortable to have to tell another person—whom they may like and respect—that they need to improve. However, avoiding this situation is selfish and is what I call a “comfort-based decision.” A selfless leader puts their own comfort aside and instead gives difficult feedback to their employees. Leaders owe it to team member to give them tough feedback for their own personal development and for the company as a whole—such that it will continue to thrive.

HRE: How do HR leaders walk the line between humility and ensuring that employees are respectful?

McCool: Humility should not be mistaken for weakness. Many view the Marine Corps as the fiercest fighting force in the world. All Marine Corps leaders are humbled in training and, hopefully, remain humble throughout their duty. My belief is that employees are actually more likely to respect and deliver for a humble leader, as opposed to an egotistical boss. A corporate example I use in the book is recognition. A humble leader is more concerned about how many awards they give instead of how many awards they receive. There is nothing worse than being in a town hall with senior leaders who take copious amounts of time to pat themselves on the back. In contrast, other senior leaders go to great lengths to recognize worthy employees among the ranks. Ask yourself the question: Who would you be more motivated to follow?

HRE: How can HR leaders best imbue selfless leadership within their own staff as well as across the organization?

McCool: Many companies already have leadership summits, retreats, etc. where they dedicate time to leadership development. That is fantastic! The problem is that nearly all of the leadership training at such events is self-focused: Think, personality surveys, executive presence training, introspection, etc. While these are all valuable, HR executives must carve out time for selfless leadership training. Leadership is a privilege and a great burden. Business leaders must understand that, first and foremost, leadership means it’s not about you.

Avatar photo
Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].