Keep your hands out of your pockets: selflessness as a leadership tool

I’m combining a few books on my shelf for this one. I suppose I do that with all my articles. Presence (2015) by Amy Cuddy, Trust Agents (2010) by C. Brogan and J. Smith, Turn the Ship Around! (2012) by L. David Marquet, and ADRP 6-22 Leadership. Selfless service represents the “S” in the Army’s acronym of LDRSHIP.

No. I haven’t begun drinking the cyanide-laced powder drink.

(Small aside. My favorite number is 47, and the S happens to be letter 4 of 7 in LDRSHIP. 47 was my boot camp number out of San Diego, CA, K CO, PLT 3083, graduating Friday 24 Aug 2001. It was the boot camp number of my favorite roommate after boot camp. It was the last two in my ZIP+4 from my initial home of residence… Forer effect, for sure; like seeing pictures in clouds or a popcorn ceiling. Still, it’s my favorite number.)


In Presence, Harvard Psychologist Amy Cuddy points out how, regardless of what we may consciously express, we first notice a person’s hands upon meeting or seeing someone new. Why? Well, since man sits at the top of the food chain and faces no natural predators – except for the mosquito, who kills more 1,000,000 people/year whereas people kill 800,000 people/year – our biggest threat remains other human beings.

It’s why I serve at the job I do. Much as I love movies, let’s face it. We don’t create militaries to fight off aliens, lizard monsters or zombies. We create militaries to defend against other human beings. Our tactics. Our weapons. They aim at killing, if necessary, other people. Other people who may intend to kill us.

And if someone does intend to kill or otherwise harm us, he’ll likely do so with his hands. Therefore, our eyes first go to someone’s hands.

Police ask potential suspects to keep hands visible. For the safety of others, police use handcuffs to restrain the hands.

In the military we salute as a sign of respect and, I believe, indirectly, to establishing trust. The history of saluting traces back to presenting the palm of one’s hand, to reveal no weapon in hand. The history also traces back to lifting the visor a knight would wear, to reveal one’s eyes. Hands. Eyes. Wearing a hood, sunglasses on, and hands in pockets, raises suspicion. Lowers trust.

Professor Cuddy points out that when we first meet, before we ask about the competence of the other person, we first ask about our safety and whether the other person threatens it. This aligns with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We first ask about the other person’s warmth, or the degree to which we find him trustworthy.

As a species, we wouldn’t have survived to reproduce offspring who in turn survived to reproduce, if we didn’t primarily guard the safety and security of ourselves and each other.

And so, as a leadership tool, we keep our hands not only out of our pockets, but our palms visible to the intended audience.


In Trust Agents, the authors give a formula to define trust. Trust = (credibility x reliability x intimacy) ÷ self-orientation.

The alt key code for the obelus (÷), by the way, is alt+0247.

It’s the self-orientation where selflessness or selfless service comes into play on leadership, and on influence in general.

Like any ratio expressed as a fraction, the quotient becomes larger as the denominator gets smaller. 10/5 = 2. 10/2 = 5. 10/1 = 10.

As it applies to trust, trust becomes greater as self-interest decreases (or, as selflessness increases).

As trust increases, influence increases.

Think of being approached by a salesman who cares only about your money, and how to get as much of it for himself as he can, at your expense. Trustworthy? Safe?

Or how about the insincere approaches that an attractive woman faces by men who care only about her body, and how much sex they can get out of her, at her expense. Trustworthy? Safe?

The smaller the self-orientation, or the greater the sincerity toward appreciating the humanness of the other and to want to see the other succeed, the more trustworthy, and the stronger the leadership.


Okay perhaps not selfish, but self-interested. Giving induces reciprocation. Not 100%, of course, but enough to matter. I’ve heard it called a value deficit, a vacuum, for the other to give back.

The other day, my wife and I celebrated our first anniversary. A family friend, Krystal, offered to look after one of our children. The other child stayed with family across town.

We stopped to chat with Krystal. Krystal shared a recent story about receiving a $400 gift card from her mom. Krystal called her mom back, upset, arguing that mom shouldn’t have done that because Krystal felt that there was no way to pay it back anytime quickly.

The gift card induced such a strong feeling of reciprocation, it felt like debt. This is probably why we put upper-price-limits on Secret Santa gifts.

I don’t believe the mom intended that. She just wanted to give to her daughter and to her daughter’s children. We met Krystal’s mom. Nice lady.

ADRP 6-22

The Army defines selfless service as doing what’s right for the nation, the organization, and one’s subordinates – choosing to eat last, as Simon Sinek illustrates in Leaders Eat Last (2017).

The Army created the acronym LDRSHIP, which not-coincidentally spells leadership, to outline its values and to represent what values its leaders should applying when leading.

If you asked me about my of overall job satisfaction today about my previous 18 years in the military, I’d say 5 of 10 (or 2.5 stars). In other words, if my satisfaction were a letter grade whereby 70% means a C, then my satisfaction is failing and at the border of more dissatisfied than not.

For some, this occupation represents a calling. For others, a career. For me, a job.

So, is it hypocritical of me to speak somewhat favorably about something that I don’t enjoy all that much?


Yet, it’s what I have.

Better means getting more. It also means getting more from what I already have.

I can choose to become depressed for lacking the wealth, health, and relationships that I wish I did possess.

Or I can choose to express gratitude for what I experience now.

Is that touch-feely bullshit I’m placating myself with, to cope, to get me to suck it up and eat the shit sandwich that is my job?


Or maybe I can start make things better by not making things worse.

A job, no matter what it is, gives one domain experience. As well as muscle memory, or a foundation on which to build, even if toward something other than that job.

When we teach and learn, we use metaphor and analogy, to say that that concept I don’t yet know, is like this concept I already know. Once one connects those neurons, bridge those ideas, then we say that learning occurs. Growth occurs.

What we’ve experienced and what we already have, we use as reference points for future learning, future growth – we use as a model, a model of both how to be and how not to be.

These just happen to be my reference points. Although we all have different reference points, different experiences, I believe we’re all still experiencing the same objective reality with the same universal principles.

In chapter 22 of Turn the Ship Around!, CAPT Marquet titles a portion of the chapter, “Mechanism: Use Your Legacy of Inspiration.” In that part of the chapter, he shares a story of his submarine approaching the site of a previous battle.

The Officer of the Day (OOD), LT Adams, announced, “Attention to port… We are now passing the approximate location of where the USS Grayling was sunk in September 1943.”

He worried that the crew would find it tacky or even corny, but that didn’t happen. He found that the announcement helped give organizational clarity, to remind his team of the bigger picture while they focus on fitting their respective puzzle pieces together.

You have it. Might as well use it. Sublimate it.