Back in the late 1990's a reporter for the Los Angeles Times approached me about a story he was writing on me and Operation HOPE, the organization I founded following the civil unrest of April 29th, 1992, in South Central Los Angeles. Often times looking for a little controversy to spice up an otherwise straight forward story about an organization that was actually doing what it said it would, this reporter decided to switch focus and speak with other local community leaders, focused on my personal style versus HOPE's substance. Fine with me. I am cool with whatever approach one desires to take.
Before too long the reporter was back in front of my desk with what he thought was my Achilles heel; he told me that while most people thought Operation HOPE was doing a good and commendable job, some he said thought me to be "sort of a self-promotor." He asked me if I had a reply, and I said I did. He responded enthusiastically, "yes, I thought you would John Bryant. So what do you say to these charges that you are sort of a self-promoter?" I responded in turn, "well, I have a real problem with that charge, as I don't believe I am sort of a self-promoter — I AM a self-promoter!". The reporter was stunned into silence. A precious moment indeed.
I went on to explain, or more so to ask, "excuse me, but who else should I be promoting other than me?" I asked him whose resume he had put forth, along with samples of award winning reporting, when he applied for his job at the Los Angeles Times? Did he put forth his own credentials, and back them up with his assertions of excellence and worth, or did he instead submit the resume of his friend Tobby? If he wanted the job, the answer had better been his own, of course. Charity starts at home, but there was an honorable reason for this response that moves far beyond the practical and common sense.
I explained further, once the reporter caught his balance, "wasn't Jesus Christ a self-promoter for the Glory of God? Wasn't Martin Luther King, Jr a self-promoter for the Drum Major Instinct and for social justice? Wasn't Gandhi a self-promoter for the freedom and independence of India? Wasn't Nelson Mandela a self-promoter for the freedom and independence of South Africa? Isn't it true that every movement must have a face? Isn't it true that we don't do business with governments, or companies or even communities, but that we do business with people?
I concluded that it wad no crime at all being a self-promoter, and in fact it may make every sense in the world to be, but rather it's the wrong question all together. The question is not whether you are a self promoter, or not, but what are you a self promoter for? Jesus was a self promoter for something larger and more important than self. Dr. King, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Michael Collins of Ireland, Ambassador Andrew Young, Desmond Tutu, Mandela and a whole host of incredible and reasonably selfless leaders, were all about something larger and more important than self. And this is the question, that should and in fact must be answered by our leaders.
In a world where we have become seminal experts on what we are against, we must decide what we are for.
In a world where true selflessness lies in the realm of the Christ and the Buddha, we must admit that we are faulty, error prone individuals (sinners), trying the very best that we can. As my friend Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has said, "a saint is a sinner that got up." As I say in LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the choice in this world is not between selfishness or unselfishness, but rather between good selfishness and bad selfishness.
Good selfishness is where I benefit, yet everyone else benefits more, and bad selfishness is where I benefit and everyone else pays a price for it. I opt for "good selfishness" in my life.
Raising your child is good selfishness.
Founding and running a non-profit organization is good selfishness.
Giving a child a gift at Christmas or a birthday, is good selfishness. That kid will be happy for the moment, in the moment, and possibly until they break the toy or become otherwise distracted, but you were happy thinking about what gift to buy, shopping for the gift to buy, paying for and wrapping the gift you bought, seeing the kids eyes light up when opening the gift you bought, and for countless good memories in the days, weeks and even years afterwards. It feels good to do some good, but the real gift is truly to the giver.
Murder and mayhem on the other hand is bad selfishness.
Drug dealing and selling out your neighbor is bad selfishness.
I believe in enlightened self interest over charity; that people will do what is right, and for a longer period of time, when it feels good at their core and speaks to their own life priorities. That is when the stars align, and endowing humanity with a sustainable sense of dignity takes over.
And so, I don't mind being called a self-promoter, but I do very much mind being called a "sorta one."
If you are going to do something, do it with excellence and with both feet. Be present in all you do. Show up in this life, and be pleased when the world calls your name, saying, "Joe, Beth — we are honored to bestow upon you the Nobel Peace Prize, for all your work on behalf of others.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, bestselling author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), a member of the Forum of Young Global Leaders with the World Economic Forum, and a member of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capabilities.