A Lesson in Selfishness

by Onyeka Nchege on April 28, 2017

So many leaders think the most important thing about being an effective leader is leading people. But in reality, true leaders put themselves before everyone else. Sounds a bit arrogant, I know, but this very topic came up during a conversation among members of a mentoring group I lead.

To better understand the importance of helping yourself before everyone else, there is a terrific airplane analogy used to help inform the value of doing so. Every time we take an airplane, the flight attendants run through a presentation about safety precautions. In the event of an in-flight emergency, we’re instructed to secure our personal oxygen masks before helping others with theirs – including our own children. For any parent, helping yourself before your children seems out of the question. But there is a valid reason for this.

Imagine: You and I are sitting next to each other on a flight to Charlotte. Suddenly, the pilot informs all passengers of the in-flight emergency, instructing everyone on-board to utilize the oxygen masks that have been dispensed from above. You see I am struggling to secure my mask, so you stop what you’re doing and turn your attention to me to help me secure it properly. A heroic gesture, right? Not quite. You see, the idea of you trying to help me with my mask before securing yours points to four possible outcomes:

  1. If you do not help yourself first, you may die
  2. If you do not help yourself first, I may die
  3. If you do not help yourself first, we both may die
  4. If you do not help yourself first, you will eventually be of no use to anyone else

While drastic in illustration, the four possible outcomes underscore the point about why you should be selfish in growing yourself (secure your mask) first.  

Now, imagine the very same scenario, but before offering to help me with my mask, you secure yours first. You are now in an optimal position to help others who need it, including me.
Leadership is no different. You can’t possibly expect yourself to be of any value or assistance to anyone unless you’ve taken the time to take care of yourself first. This means investing in the time and resources necessary to recharge, grow, adapt and develop into an experienced, prepared and clear-minded individual. It’s not selfish, it’s imperative.  I can’t help you until I help myself.  I can’t pour into you until I have been poured into myself.  I can’t share what I know until I know what to share.  

Take Action: The next time you’re thinking of jumping in to help someone, think about whether or not you’re actually in a position to do so. Consider putting on your own oxygen mask before putting on someone else’s. Otherwise, you run the risk of running out of oxygen before you’re able to deliver it to anyone else.

Leadership on the GO…..It’s O.N

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A recent finalist for the 2017 ORBIE CIO of the Year award, Onyeka brings more than 20 years of experience leading teams, developing strategies and building technology solutions. He has also led the creation and integration of technology solutions for a network of retail store franchises and distributors across North and Central America. Onyeka contributes to CIO Review magazine and shares his insights and experience with peers and colleagues via his own blog, onyekanchege.com Before joining Interstate Batteries in 2015, Onyeka led teams at Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated, where he modernized technology practices and powered business processes for daily, on-the-street use. He is a graduate of the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University and currently serves on the EVANTA Dallas CIO Governing Body. If Onyeka were not at Interstate, he’d find another way to combine his three biggest passions: his faith, helping others, and, of course, information technology. Because ultimately, as he puts it, “we can’t help everyone, but everyone can always help someone.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Deepesh June 1, 2017 at 3:19 pm

The article analogy hits home run. I have thought of this several times while in coach class spacious seats!
While thinking of four outcomes I realized that there is nothing selfish in growing yourself(securing your mask). In fact it is naive to help others without helping self! A corollary can be if I am learning swimming should I get in unknown pool before or after the instructor?
A thought provoking and yet short piece of write up!


avatar Onyeka Nchege July 11, 2017 at 9:39 pm

Love the swimming analogy. Absolutely makes sense. Thanks for sharing and adding your valuable insight.


avatar Robert Hunt October 9, 2017 at 6:47 am

Great reminder that we are only able to bring our A-game when we first take care of ourselves.


avatar Onyeka Nchege October 10, 2017 at 1:29 pm

True indeed. Rest+care=AGame


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