Inspire Your Team by Living This One Leadership Principle From the U.S. Marines

Only an unselfish leader can earn the trust that is essential for small teams to succeed.

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By John Boitnott

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JJDIDTIEBUCKLE. No I didn't just type a bunch of random letters on my keyboard. It's the 14 leadership principles followed by the United States Marines.

One of those 14 principles is unselfishness. To become a great leader it is perhaps the single most important principle you must learn. This is true in the Marine Corps and it is true in small-business life. Leading a team within a small business is one of the hardest tasks the average professional can face.

Why? Because little separates you from your employees. In many cases the organization has not yet found remarkable success or even reliable structure. Your employees often have a similar amount of industry experience as you do. Unselfishness is a reliable tool in smoothing out the bumpy interactions that occur as a result of such dynamics.

This is all to say, becoming a well-regarded leader in a small business is tough. Not as tough as leading Marines in a war zone, but tough nonetheless.

Here, I'll explain how business people, and small-business owners in particular, can harness the leadership superpower of unselfishness to successfully become a greater leader.

Related: 7 Leadership Lessons From U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Earn the trust of colleagues through unselfishness.

One of the hardest and most important aspects of managing a team, especially as a business leader who must heavily rely on small teams to achieve big goals, is sharing candid feedback.

Managers who shy away from sharing feedback because they fear confrontation are doing themselves and their team a serious disservice. It's selfish.

At the same time, sharing feedback is only valuable if the person on the other end uses your feedback to improve themselves professionally. The best way to make the conversation friendly while also ensuring your employee is receptive is by earning trust.

It is easier to share honest feedback when colleagues trust that you care about their best interests. By practicing unselfish leadership, you'll be able to earn their trust and thus share constructive feedback with them in situations that might otherwise be challenging.

Another word for this is "servant leadership," a term coined by a management expert at AT&T. It's now a practice employed by some of the world's most successful leaders. Servant leadership requires that managers put their people first. They sacrifice to ensure that their people are in the best position to succeed, and they unselfishly give credit to their people when things go well.

In other words, as a leader you serve your people, your people don't serve you.

So how do you act unselfishly to earn trust? Take time to understand the psyche of each person on your team.

Schedule a weekly one-on-one meeting with each team member. Ensure that your employees know the meeting is for you to help them succeed. They should come to you with problems they're dealing with, and you should use your experience to coach them to successful outcomes.

Once they are successful, allow your people to take the credit. Senior managers will know that you played a role in getting them there, as their success reflects on you. And your people will learn to value your help and will view it as an unselfish act on your part.

Related: 5 Steps for Giving Productive Feedback

Build your influence with senior managers.

Jocko Willink, though not a Marine, knows a thing or two about leadership. He is a former Navy SEAL turned self-help guru. During an interview with Tim Ferriss, Willink shared that when he met regularly with senior commanders he made it a point to refuse to ask for additional supplies unless they were absolutely critical. Senior officers trusted that when Willink asked for supplies, the team must be in dire need of resources, given his reputation. By going without so that other teams could have access to helpful tools, Willink built influence within his organization that earned him respect from the people who mattered.

While it's never a good idea to refuse to ask for help on principle alone, professionals should take a page from Willink's playbook. Forgo asking for additional resources unless they are absolutely necessary to accomplish key objectives. Not only will this exercise help you to separate the essential elements of a given project, it will also help your managers better serve you and your team.

Related: 6 Ways to Ask for Help Without Being Embarrassed

Create an ego-free environment.

What's another phrase for inefficiency? Office politics.

If you're running a small business you have no time for inefficiency, especially when it's caused by inflated egos and petty infighting. The best antidote to office politics within any organization is unselfishness.

Unselfishness in many ways is the antithesis to self-importance. Prove that you are willing to sacrifice your time, energy and pride in dealing with office challenges big and small. If employees see a respected colleague clean out the office refrigerator, or stay late to help a colleague get his work done, they will eventually follow suit.

Related: 3 Ways to Put Your Ego Aside and Get Stuff Done

Leading with unselfishness is a practice espoused by military academies, and by successful business institutions. By acting unselfishly you prove to your people that you have their best interest at heart, and you break down defensive barriers that might otherwise make it challenging to share honest feedback.

Acting unselfishly will also impress senior leaders within your organization as well as smother ego-centric workplace attitudes. It is perhaps the key thing that can propel your career or company to greater success.

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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