by Kent R. Austin, CPFO
City of University Park, Texas
The core of selfishness is the placement of narrow self-interest above all else. Once the concept of self-interest is broadened to include one’s work unit, employees, and organization, however, selfishness becomes a productive quality. Closely allied with self-confidence, productive selfishness may be summed up in a simple two word sentence: “I want.”
A manager who can say “I want _______________” is on the way to taking action in a way that builds on both indifference and intolerance. The willingness to stand up for one’s department or employees, to acquire resources for them to do their work, is positive selfishness.
The Power of “E=f(ex + a)”
Once the expression of “I want” is made and initial action is taken, an upward spiral of change and confidence begins. Personal energy is a function of two factors: expression and action, captured in the equation “E=f(ex + a)”. More than physical fitness, adequate sleep, or a healthy diet, authentic expression and initial action generate energy and confidence.
Conversely, suppressing expression and avoiding action drain energy and increase doubt. If the suppression lasts long enough, it becomes toxic, and the individual becomes a candidate for health problems like ulcers or depression, which is sometimes described as “anger turned inward.” When taken to an extreme, breakdown can occur, a shattering of the ego and questioning of one’s own being.
Speaking out and taking action can be tremendously liberating. The more authentic and genuine an individual can be in their communications with others, the more connected they will feel to others. The book Difficult Conversation provides effective techniques for initiating conversations that must be had but are often suppressed or avoided.
Feeling connected to others increases one’s willingness to communicate candidly with them, which can boost productivity by promoting the behaviors and goals that lead to high performance.
Connectedness relies on good communication, which takes forms much broader than most managers realize. In some ways, everything a manager does is communication—the way he dresses and presents himself, the way he manages time and prioritizes his actions, the way he organizes and maintains his office, the way he expresses himself in speech and writing.
One reason the Smartphone app “Words with Friends” is so popular is that it positively yet subtly connects its players emotionally. On the surface, WWF is simply online Scrabble, played on mobile devices at whatever pace the participants desire. Individuals often have multiple games going simultaneously, unrestricted by distance—a player in Texas may have WWF games going with players in Nebraska, Illinois, and West Virginia. A chime sounds on the player’s cell phone whenever their opponent has completed a move. This simple small sound suggests “someone is thinking of me.” It is a small but quiet way of staying connected with others.
Selfishness may also be diverted into constructive self-awareness. Having a centered, solid sense of self—of one’s purpose in life, of one’s intrinsic value, of one’s acceptance of imperfections but also pride in abilities—is vital for a successful manager. Until the manager possesses this self-awareness, he will not be able to impose his will on his unit and truly lead his employees.
The importance of positive self-awareness is captured by John Powell, SJ, in his 1978 book, Fully Human, Fully Alive. Powell makes the following observations:
- “A good self-image is the most valuable psychological possession of a human being.”
- “The success or failure of human relationships is determined mainly by success or failure at communication.”
- “The full and free experience and expression of all our feelings is necessary for personal peace and meaningful relationships.”
Successful self-awareness and self-confidence lead to better communication; better communication leads to more understanding; more understanding leads to clarity of goal; and clarity of goal leads to willingness to act and impose change.
Popular culture reinforces: Selfishness, Self-Awareness and Communication
- Books: Fully Human, Fully Alive by John Powell, SJ (1978); Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (1969); Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (1999).
- Movies: Toy Story (1995)
- Music: “So Much to Say,” Dave Matthews Band (1996); “Elevation,” U2 (2000); “The Middle,” Jimmy Eat World (2001); “I’ll Be You,” The Replacements (1989).
- Historical figures: St. Ignatius Loyola; George Washington; Winston Churchill
“Ahead, warp factor one”
Many “Star Trek” episodes ended with Captain Kirk easing into his command seat and casually directing the Enterprise’s helmsman, “Ahead, warp factor one, Mr. Sulu.” This image captures the focused, action-oriented, self-possessed demeanor that finance officers may aspire to. Captain Kirk is one more example of how the accumulation of experience and popular culture may be drawn upon to make a better finance officer.
This is part 3 of Kent Austin’s article “How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer” which will appear in GFOA’s Government Finance Review in February 2013. Find part 1 here and part 2 here. Kent is a 1988 graduate of the KU MPA program. He serves as the director of finance for the City of University Park, Texas and is the 2012-13 president of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.