The Damaging Impact Of Self-Preservation and How To Reverse It

In the book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell affirms that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a particular field. In preparation for this project, Gladwell studied the lives of exceptionally successful people to find out how they achieved success and concluded with convincing evidence that greatness is the positive consequence to the investment of hard work and intense dedication. This is a widely applied model for mastery but does not answer the question of intent: For what purpose are we seeking mastery of a particular pursuit? For our own personal gain, or for the good of others? Secure leaders know that mastery is best parlayed for the greater good, but it’s very easy, even for the best of us, to fall into the trap of protecting what we’ve accomplished and achieved.

self preservation

Self-preservation is the saboteur of healthy culture and deeply fixed within the organizational DNA held by many in authority. The habit of self-preservation is the Achilles heel to a leader’s influence and broadly observed as a visceral pattern mastered by leaders across all sectors. This negative tendency is not a new phenomenon to leadership. In fact, this pattern of overprotection dates back to the earliest stories of the Egyptian pharaohs who believed their spirits would remain inside their bodies after death and in agreement to this belief, spared no expense to ensure their bodies would transition securely into the afterlife through the sophisticated science and mastery of mummification.

From the leadership lens, this example might sound a bit preposterous in relationship to your experience and may even have you asking the question, “What’s the harm in protecting yourself? Isn’t the natural act of preservation simply the discipline of responsibility?”

The obvious answer is yes! We are all wired for natural and healthy fight or flight tendencies when danger surfaces. This is the reason parents will go to great lengths to provide secure and safe environments for their children and why most of us have insurance policies to protect ourselves and our stuff. The principles of responsibility and security are important where leadership is concerned, as well, but as responsible citizens, defending and serving for others is the acceptable key to healthy forms of preservation.

Regrettably however, self-preservation runs opposed to the qualities of leaders worth following Through behaviors and actions promoting the mentality of self-interest, leaders disempower or overpower those they lead instead of encouraging, equipping, and empowering their success. The ugly byproduct of the self-interested leader is a culture of resentment held deeply across the organization that limits the oxygen of growth and advancement for others.

Reversing the Trend of Self-Preservation

What tactics can leaders use to begin reversing self-preserving tendencies to become, instead, liberating leaders?

  1. Embrace Change – Change can either be perceived as a threat or an opportunity. A self-preserving leader is typically averse to change and becomes the builder of barriers and fortified systems that protect self from vulnerability. This attitude prevents empowerment of others and the opportunities that enable growth. A leader who is worth following learns how to channel and restrain his or her natural tendencies of self-service and consider the conditions and opportunities that would advantage others. This may indeed mean shifting to embrace needed change and trusting to invest in others.
  2. Continuously Develop – Self-protecting leaders are often learn “ed” rather than learn “ers.” Leaders who stop growing eventually start to cling to the power of position and title instead of competence and character. These leaders rely on seniority and experience to compensate for any diminishment of knowledge and skill. The allure of self-preservation sucks them into the vortex of their own comforts resulting in a likely imbalance between responsibility and authority. Leaders worth following are hungry, humble, and getting smarter by the day through self-study and regular engagement within the learning exchanges occurring among their teams.
  3. Believe – Insecure leaders place others at a car’s length and protect their valued turf. Having diminished confidence through set backs and failure, many leaders fear being called out by others as incompetent. These leaders live with a massive sense of uncertainty and self-doubt. Naturally, insecure leaders don’t respond, but react to failure seeing it as a condition to condemn others and things rather than an opportunity to grow.

So, what can you do if you see these tendencies in your own leadership?

  • Call It Out: What is the protective skill (for self) that you have mastered over the course of your leadership journey? Ask the key questions: What am I afraid of losing? What am I trying to protect? What am I trying to hide?
  • Own It: What is your will and level of responsibility to reversing this self-interest tendency?
  • Respond To It: What is your detailed plan for advancing beyond the Wall of Preservation?
  • Execute: How and when will you put your plan in place?

About the Author

Joseph is a Creative/Connector with zeal to significantly “Encourage, Equip, and Empower Those Who Lead.” Dr. Hill has a wealth of experience in organizational leadership, human development, and teaching as a practitioner, educational leader, executive coach, author, and blogger. Joseph holds a post-graduate degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Servant Leadership and is a Licensed Executive Coach through the International Coach Federation. Learn more about Dr. Hill at or follow him on Twitter @liveleadserve.

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