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When Self-Interest Is An Excuse Not to Lead

In the last few days the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, maintained that he could not be involved in negotiations over the West Bank territories because he has a home on the West Bank and is thus a self-interested party. Mr. Lieberman’s lack of action can be characterized as taking a moral stand; however, beneath the surface, it’s a true failure of leadership.

Leaders who don’t have the capacity to understand the collective good and are not able to work toward it have no business to lead, especially if they are only thinking in terms of their self-interest. Indeed, the moral failure in the financial world stems from the inability of leaders to differentiate from individual self-interest and the collective good. In the realm of investment banking, many leaders thought that their self-interest and the collective good were one in the same. This delusion perpetuated moral failure and the financial collapse.

In Mr. Lieberman’s case, it is obvious that he is attempting to exclude himself from hard negotiations because of his self-interest. Thus, he hopes he can have his cake and eat it. By excluding himself, he guards his self-interest by not alienating either the politically right or left camps in Israel and, better still, he appears to be self-sacrificing. But leadership is not about exclusion–nor is about denial of one’s self-interest. It is about acting in spite of self-interest. Leaders clearly understand their self-interest, control it, and take action in spite of it.

That’s where Mr. Lieberman and the barons of Wall St. meet: they fail at separating their self-interest and the collective good. They fail at leading.

I’m reminded of the many instances where defense minsters and generals have to make hard decisions regarding military affairs in spite of the fact that their children are serving in the very units they command. Few of these military leaders admit that they couldn’t lead because self-interest got in the way–they are capable of taking action on behalf of the collective good–even when the collective good runs counter to their own goals, desires, and ambitions.

True leaders act neither on behalf of their self-interest nor exclude themselves because of self-interest. True leaders are aware of their self-interest and still are able to act on behalf of the collective good.



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