The Simplest Lesson for Leaders: It is Not About You

If leadership begins with you and is really not about you, you are externally oriented.

The Simplest Lesson for Leaders: It is Not About You
Tim Winand
December 5, 2023
Leadership & Followership

Leadership is, all at once, a rewarding, challenging, lonely, exhausting, and exhilarating experience. But we should be careful not to overcomplicate it, as there is also a beautiful simplicity to leadership that should not be overlooked. In most endeavors, people can find some measure of sustainable success through adherence to those simple things that are considered fundamental to the practice. Every sport has these fundamental practices, as does law, parenting, agriculture, medicine, and the sciences. Similarly, the art of effective leadership includes actions and mental approaches that must be considered its “minimum constituents.” They are so important, in fact, that leadership just would not be what it is meant to be without them. In leadership, one of these “minimum constituents” is orientation, where the leader’s thoughts, inclinations, and interests lie as a matter of daily routine. The Severn Leadership Group makes its view on a leader’s orientation quite clear through the simple yet unassailable assertion, “leadership begins with you, but it is not about you.” A leader’s orientation, then, must be viewed as an essential mental approach to leading human beings. It is fundamental to its very practice.

Enter the story of King David and Bathsheba. The Old Testament recounts the story of King David, a strong, charismatic, strategically focused, and undeniably successful leader. Over time, however, he saw his success disappear due to unethical decisions and gross self-indulgence that ultimately destroyed his personal and professional lives. King David impregnated Bathsheba who was married to Uriah, a soldier fighting on King David’s behalf. After attempting to cover up the pregnancy, King David ordered one of his Generals to expose Uriah to enemy fire on the battlefield, where he was ultimately killed during the siege of Rabbah. King David eventually took Bathsheba as his wife, and she later gave birth to his child. Professors Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker do an excellent job of recounting this story in more detail, and highlighting its implications for ethical leadership, in their 1993 article, “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.” Overflowing with leadership lessons for all of us, I commend it to those who lead now – at any level – and those who aspire to lead in the future. 

Scholars have described the Bathsheba Syndrome as the moral corruption of powerful people, which is caused by, among other things, the psychological impact of gaining power over others. There are numerous present-day examples, many involving prominent military and civilian figures. Research has shown when individuals gain power, there is a tendency for their views and evaluations of themselves to grow more favorable, while their views of others often grow more negative. Aligned with this research, Ludwig and Longenecker point out that King David’s abuse of his powerful position contributed in a significant way to his eventual downfall. He suffered a loss of strategic focus, a heightened sense of privilege and access to things, a belief he could use resources for personal gain, and an inflated belief in his personal ability to control any outcome. Using these four areas, Ludwig and Longenecker differentiate between personal and organizational issues, labeling privileged access and inflated belief as personal issues, while control of resources and loss of strategic focus as organizational issues. For me, these four failures are all underpinned by the same issue: King David’s misplaced orientation as a leader. Simply put, his thoughts, interests, and inclinations were consistently focused internally – and almost exclusively - on himself. Without a set of timeless and transcendent virtues to guide him through the best and worst of times, failure was a natural consequence. 

When anyone affiliated with the Severn Leadership Group says or writes, “leadership begins with you, but it is not about you,” all of us must be reminded that leaders are measured by their impact on their teams and organizations and the people within them. Full stop. The “begins with you” piece is valid, of course, and demands leaders have vision, clear guidance, and a presence that must be felt across the organization. That said, we don’t lead for personal or professional gain, and we can never let the psychological impact of our power and associated influence over others corrupt us. As leaders, we fail when we bathe in the privileges afforded to us. We fail when we use our influence and position for personal gain and benefit. We fail when we become infatuated with the perks of our positions. We fail when we care more about people serving us than we do about our service to those people. As human beings, many of us have “failed” the “it’s not about you” test at some point in our lives. The beauty of it is we can grow and take active steps to appreciate the importance of shifting our orientations. Guided by experienced mentors, the Severn Leadership Group Fellows Program gives you the chance to do just that. 

To appreciate the beautiful simplicity of leadership, ask yourself these questions: What is my orientation as a leader? As it relates to my role as a leader, what exactly do I think about during the day? Where do I focus my time and attention on a daily basis? What do my actions as a leader say about my orientation? On the first question, there are very limited answers available to you, as leader orientations come in only two flavors – internal and external – and only one of them is right. If you feel leadership begins with you and is about you, you are internally oriented. Like King David, you care more about yourself, your power, and your privilege. You love the position you are in and all that it affords you. Like King David, you are self-absorbed. And like King David, you are likely doomed to fail. 

If leadership begins with you and is really not about you, you are externally oriented. And you are right. Your thoughts, inclinations, and interests are routinely on your team, no matter the size, and the individuals within it you are entrusted to lead. You revel in the successes of your people, not your own. Externally oriented leaders have the best chance to find success as a leader, as they provide the greatest inspiration and influence on others – because they feel it is their duty to do so. They generate the highest sense of shared purpose and sustained organizational success. They are the most highly regarded by anyone who interacts with them. Those they lead feel their sincerity and believe in their commitment to forging a winning organizational culture embraced by the masses. True to the unassailable assertion of the Severn Leadership Group, the activity of leadership starts with them, but it is never about them. Success awaits those who embrace this fundamental mental approach of “leadership begins with you, but it is not about you.” Leadership simply cannot be what it is meant to be without it.   


1 From Merriam Webster, Fundamental Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

2 Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker, The Bathsheba Syndrome, The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders, Ludwig+Longenecker, The Bathsheba Syndrome.pdf (

3 Donelson R. Forsyth, The Bathsheba Syndrome: When a Leader Fails, The Bathsheba Syndrome: When a Leader Fails (

4 Ibid.

5 Ludwig and Longenecker, The Bathsheba Syndrome, The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.

Tim Winand is a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a retired Marine Corps officer who has been affiliated with the Severn Leadership Group since 2022. He currently serves as a consultant in the Northern Virginia area.

The Simplest Lesson for Leaders: It is Not About You

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.