Leadership Qualities

People Who Only Think of Themselves in Order to Get Ahead Are Not Leaders

It's time we came up with a new term for those who build their businesses on the exploitation of others.
People Who Only Think of Themselves in Order to Get Ahead Are Not Leaders
Image credit: skynesher | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO of Day One Leadership; Author of 'This is Day One'
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's a rite of passage for an entrepreneur: staring at a screen, business card template open and cursor blinking on the line below your name -- what's it going to be?

CEO? President? Founder? Perhaps you eschew the title and focus on the role: consultant; artist; contractor; imagineer? (Note: You're gonna want a lawyer if you try that last one.)

I typed in Chief Catalyst.

Related: Your Narcissism Is Killing Your Employees' Productivity. How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

I'd loved the word since my freshman year of high school, when my chemistry teacher Mr. Broderick simplified it for me: "A catalyst makes amazing things happen faster -- not by itself, but by unlocking the potential of what's around it." I didn't understand the science (another point Mr. Broderick's class made abundantly clear), but I recognized quickly it was the perfect term for a leader.

However, while all leaders are catalysts, not all catalysts are leaders, and our organizations and culture will be stronger when we more consciously acknowledge and teach that distinction.

Leaders are catalysts in the expansion of capacity for other human beings: an expansion of their rights, an expansion of their opportunities, an expansion of their skills, knowledge, confidence and self-worth. This can lead to business and financial success, fame and influence, though not always.

The challenge is there is another group who achieve business and financial success, fame and influence not by being catalysts for the improvement of others, but through a relentless focus on their own self-interest. They build their lives and careers through fear, deception and manipulation, build their businesses on the exploitation of others, and leave countless people empty and hurt in their wake.

Related: The 5 Worst Leadership Qualities: How Many Does Your Boss Have?

And yet we still call that group leaders because of what they accomplish:

  • He made a lot of enemies along the way, but you can't deny the impact he had.
  • Her leadership style was tough, but you can't argue with the results.
  • You might not agree with her methods, but she mobilized millions behind her beliefs.

This teaches a dangerous lesson. For close to a decade, I ran a leadership development program at one of the world's most prestigious universities, and realized that by focusing on what is accomplished rather than how it is accomplished when recognizing leaders, young people are unconsciously coming to believe that it doesn't matter which approach you take: The end accolade is the same. In fact, many have come to believe that while it would be nice to go through life as a leader who focuses on others first, history has shown it's those willing to "look out for number one" who rise highest.

The thing is, it's not.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their three-decade analysis of the behaviors that set great leaders apart, identified "Five Exemplary Leadership Practices." Four of them focus directly on how you impact others: Modeling the Way, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart.

Related: The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

Those practices aren't just about being nice: Organizations where senior leaders regularly engaged in those behaviors had net income growth nearly 18 times higher and stock price growth nearly four times higher than those organizations whose leaders did not.

Years ago, I began searching for a different term for those who are catalysts for actions that diminish, divide and disempower. I was tired of having students believe that both the high road and the low road led to leadership. I wanted to have a word to describe what you became when you chose not to empower others, and I didn't want it to be "leader." I needed an answer to a question I received again and again: "But, what about Hitler? Or Bin Laden? Or that CEO who has built a Fortune 500 company through a tyrannical management approach and sweatshops in Malaysia? They mobilized huge numbers of people to do immense things -- yeah those things were bad, but they must have had leadership skills, right?"

We must stop presenting that approach as just a "different type of leader" or even "a bad leader." We need a term that clearly indicates it's something else entirely. I've finally settled on this: these are "catalysts for harm."

"Catalyst for harm" is a term that can allow us to better illustrate the distinction between leadership and simple financial success, fame and influence. Between actual empowerment and charismatic manipulation. Between those we should celebrate for their leadership and those we should call out for treating others as obstacles to -- or tools for -- their personal benefit and advancement. It recognizes that these individuals can make remarkable things happen, can mobilize huge numbers of people or make millions of dollars, but that we as a culture do not see them as leaders.

Related: 3 Bad Leadership Traits You Need to Overcome When You Become a CEO

What kind of catalyst are you and your business? What kind of catalysts are you hiring, and what kind of catalysts are you rewarding? Do your hiring interviews and employee assessments strike a balance between "what have you accomplished?" and "who is better because of you?" Whether your business creates catalysts for harm or leaders is determined by what you reward. Do you reward those who outperform others (which fosters catalysts for harm) or those who make those around them better (which fosters real leadership)?

Too often we entrepreneurs act as catalysts for harm in our own lives: chasing a leadership measured by what we have accomplished, rather than how we have accomplished it. We ask ourselves whether we are the type of person who can outperform others, rather than whether we've become the type of person where everyone who works with us outperforms everyone who doesn't. In doing so we hurt ourselves, our relationships and sacrifice the person we hope to be in the name of the business we hope to build.

How we foster, speak and recognize leadership will play a huge role in how it is understood and taught in our society. Let's all start stripping the title of leader away from those who fail to "unlock the potential of what's around them" and instead bestow upon them a title to which no young person will aspire: "catalyst for harm."

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