What Happens When We Realise Selflessness Isn’t The Opposite Of Selfishness?

Dec 23, 2016 8 Min Read
Selflessness, tic-tac-toe with Xs and hearts
“What’s in it for me?”

Isn’t this the perennial question to be answered when there is a need to motivate one to action?

Even in charitable acts, there is the visible mock-up cheque or the unseen need to feel good about the act of kindness rendered. This being the overriding condition of human nature, is there really such a thing as an act of selflessness? Strictly speaking, even the need to “feel good” for a kind act is deemed selfish because it is still something which I aim to get in return for my charitable investment.

Why then do we react to the word selfishness with disdain when we see such acts being displayed by others and call for more selflessness in the world we live in? Is that which we expect more of in others also that which we expect the least of in ourselves?

We have a problem: while we have the intention of selflessness, we display the intensity of selfishness. Of course, you can cite me a Mother Teresa-type of example and prove the point that selflessness still exists.

However, the premise of this article is to address the behavioural situation of general humanity – people like you and me – who do not necessarily possess the near-divine attributes of the giant saints of generosity.

Here is my proposition – the opposite of selfishness is not selflessness, it is love. So, the question to ask is not how I can be more selfless, but rather it should be “How can I love more?” There are a few subtle differences between the word selfless and the word love.

Difference 1: The test of truth

Love, authentic love – is marked by the courage to tell the truth and confront deviant behaviour. In order to do this, you need to be sure of yourself and be clear about the standards you hold. Being selfless does not necessarily generate this type of moral courage because the focus is on exerting more of yourself (the truth claims) rather than retreating to be less of yourself.

It is the marked presence of courageous love that will make the difference. You can be selfless and perform all sorts of acts of kindness, but if there is no genuine love, no strength to state the truth as it is, then it profits nothing.

Difference 2: The test of enmity

It is easy to be selfless towards your family members and close friends, but think about someone who irritates you, someone who gets on your nerves, someone who is just plain unlikable, and I bet all those feelings of selflessness quickly vaporise away. It does not take a lot to be selfless when we are with likeable folks, but when we are faced with the possibility of opposition, it requires a greater strength, a higher perspective.

Strong love is that which decides what is the right thing to do and then does it, whether one feels like it or not. Again, this requires a deep moral resolve, a strong conviction of principles over feelings. My ability to look beyond my surface feelings of enmity towards someone and seek to meet the needs of others despite my personal reluctance is a sign of maturity. It is the ability to look past outward appearances to see the heart of the other person. I can be selfless and be willing to accept the situation but a strong love actively seeks the good of the other person.

Difference 3: The test of debate

Being selfless may excuse one from taking sides, based on the thinking that selflessness means being neutral and peace-loving. But neutrality does not win wars – it only extends them. In other words, if need be, am I willing to press forward to make a stand for what is right and risk losing a friend? The resolve to embrace the right position is more important than embracing a compromised friendship. In other words, the need to discuss or even to debate through issues is more important than just the “selfless” desire to remain passive in order to keep the peace.

To go beyond the self-effacing mindset, we need to practice convicting love that is daring enough to press forward with a compelling case for change. Put simply, if I am not prepared to argue for my case and to make a clear stand, then I have a poor understanding of love. For example, a truly loving parent will not be giving in to every demand of the child in the name of selflessness. Rather, the parent has the responsibility not to give in and ensure that he or she wins – not in the spirit of arrogance but for the sake of the child’s long-term character growth.

The nature of love

The highest and most powerful type of love is not self-generated. That is the reason why if we were to focus on selflessness alone, it will not conquer the issue of selfishness – there is the “generative” aspect to consider which is external to oneself and not internally-produced.

Selflessness counts the cost of what I give up, genuine love is confident on the cause of what I live for. Ironically, it is only when I am clear of what I am living for (the cause) that I am then willing to make the necessary sacrifices (the commitment).

In my consulting experience, many organisations go the way of cost-cutting as a measure to bring about a turnaround in performance. This probably brings about a quick improvement. However, the question to ask is whether this change is sustainable. In addition to the matter of cost, organisation leaders need to go deeper and examine the cause-clarity of the company – not what they sell, rather what they stand for. In the name of cost-cutting and ruthless measurements, it is possible to be so number-focused that we become numb to the reason the company was founded in the first place.

In such a situation, we should not rally the employees together on the notion of “What you are willing to give up for the sake of the organisation?” (selflessness). Instead, leaders should ask: “Do you love what you do here enough to be doing the right thing to bring us back on course?” (genuine love). The focus is on love rather than on loss. In fact, people don’t mind losing their entitlements and even benefits if the message of genuine love is clear enough.

The type of love that will stand the test of time and endure much opposition does not begin with a selfless mindset. It is not the emptying of self which brings about true transformation, but rather, filling yourself with the right truth principles that generate the needed strength and stability.

However, we need to recognise that there are four obstacles which stand in the way of developing genuine love:

Obstacle no. 1: Promoting my own name and reputation

The longing for personal acclaim is deeply imbedded in all of us. This desire to excel is not evil in and of itself because this is the basis of all competition, especially in sports.

However, this wholesome desire can be distorted if we think that by being first we can promote our own name and reputation. Speak to any leader worth his or her salt, and you will find a person who spends more time talking about the reputation of the organisation rather than their own reputation, and about the common good of the team rather than his or her personal goal.

From an organisational standpoint, this particular challenge comes into play when there is a restructuring and reorganisation exercise. When there is an unhealthy level of jostling for positions, you know that this obstacle of self-promotion is at play.

Obstacle No. 2: Protecting our own will and rights

If you want to start a reawakening, tell people what their responsibilities are. If you want to start a riot, tell people what their rights are. We now live in a generation where there are all sorts of rights being propagated. While there are certain human rights matters which are non-negotiable, there can also be certain personal “rights” which often are disguises for a sense of entitlement and personal preferences. At the heart of a disengaged culture is the building up of “mini-empires” led by entitled gang leaders who believe that their rights are always right.

From an organisational standpoint, it is critical that part of the onboarding process should include a phase of vision and values clarification. Without an explicit deliberation on the matching of vision and values, it is inevitable that certain strong-willed characters will create their own kingdoms where they are the kings exerting their self-defined rights. As far as values and cultural expectations are concerned, we cannot over-communicate. In reality, the reverse is true – we don’t talk enough about alignment to vision and values.

Obstacle no. 3: Focusing on monetary gains

Money is an excellent servant but a very poor master. Money or financial issues lie at the heart of many broken relationships – in the workplace and also at home. The point is not the money itself but the accompanying emotions. Do I place all my hope and security in wealth at the expense of rich relationships?

The word “financial freedom” is somewhat an oxymoron because serving money alone does not result in freedom – in fact, it brings about just the opposite – a bondage to a narrow life. Also, those who focus on monetary gains alone are not free to serve others because there is this constant anxiety of protecting the assets and the nervousness that the wealth might one day be lost.

Genuine love operates on the principle that financial gains come about as a result of pursuing the right goals. When the pursuit is right, the profits will come.

Obstacle no. 4: Pursuing personal agendas

Genuine love is giving to the basic needs of others without having as my motive, personal reward. Love is a comparative term, i.e. my love for someone or something is measured when it is compared with another that I love less. Many organisations are struggling to transform their culture from the ground up because of the resistance of individuals with personal agendas. While the chief executive officer is busy crafting the corporate agenda, there is an underlying counter-current from self-focused employees who drag down the direction that is being set.

The hard decision is this: no two conflicting agendas can co-exist. The leader must step in, make the decisive call and draw the line on the sand – are you in or are you out? Let’s face it – an organisation cannot afford to have an army of employees with their own personal battle plans. It is no wonder that many chief executives today are shouting the corporate war-cry only to find that hardly anyone follows because everyone else is redefining the battle lines to their own convenience and preference.


The way to overcome selfishness is to look beyond one’s self and practice genuine love within the context of accountability. The mindset of selflessness alone is not the answer – it is a good starting point but it does not account for the whole journey. The answer is the exercise of genuine love.

We were not created to fulfil our life purpose alone. We need others and others need us. But just being together will not work unless we have genuine love. The question to reflect on then is not “What’s in it for me?” – but rather why are we doing what we are doing? Ask a few iterations of this question until you are satisfactorily convinced that what you are doing stems from the motive of exercising genuine love.

This is what true empowerment is about.

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Joseph is a Leaderonomics faculty trainer who is passionate about engaging with leaders to transform culture in organisations. Previously, he was CEO of Leaderonomics Good Monday. He is currently based in the United States

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