With all the talk in recent months of our nation’s fiscal cliff, which some in Congress attribute to excessive “entitlement” programs, it seems like a good time to address the latter. Not in an attempt to score political points or debate issues, but to examine how a negative quality so prevalent in American society can worm its way into both our people and their leaders.
In a general sense, entitlement typically means that someone is due certain economic or similar benefits. The term is also used to refer to massive federal and state programs that guarantee citizens income or benefits.
If you will allow me to sound political for just a moment, the federal government is the most obvious example. Its 235 entitlement programs cost taxpayers more than one trillion dollars every year. Those programs present the most serious challenges to the economic future of the United States.
The three biggest entitlement programs are Social Security (though many would argue they worked for these benefits), Medicare and Medicaid. You can see the most recent annual reports for Social Security and Medicare, which were released last spring. Both programs are on an unsustainable path, according to the respective trustees of the trust funds. Their very solvency is in jeopardy.
Entitlement and the individual
References to “entitlements” often occur in a pejorative sense, stemming from often-unrealistic expectations. A person rationalizes that he or she “deserves” favors from an organization, family, government or others. On a trip last year, I heard an irate airline customer screaming at a gate attendant because his seat had not been upgraded to first class. Though the employee of the airline calmly explained that he was on a waiting list, with the priority set according to miles traveled, he refused to accept the explanation. After all, he said, “I am entitled to first class.”
Similarly, I recently heard of an employee in an organization express frustration because the organization would not grant him more vacation time. This despite the fact that he already enjoyed seven weeks of vacation, in addition to paid holidays. Still, he felt entitled to more.
In the world of clinical psychology, individuals with an obsessive sense of entitlement are diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder. Of course, narcissism is an inordinate fascination with oneself or excessive self-love. It is vanity at its worst. It is the living, breathing personification of the entitlement mentality.
When leaders feel entitled
As a leader’s sphere of influence increases, he may feel that certain benefits and perks are due him. She may believe that those in the organization exist for her service and needs. Entitlement is a creeping sickness that often envelops a leader with such deceptive subtlety that the leader is often unaware of its control.
Frankly, I am embarrassed to admit that I have sometimes yielded to this temptation. I am the president of a large organization with thousands of employees. Without going into detail, I admit that I have caught myself thinking that I deserve a particular benefit or a certain perk, just because I occupy this position. I have to remind myself that the organization gave me this leadership as gift. It includes a huge stewardship responsibility. Instead of expecting, I should place priority on giving. I am stupid when I think I deserve something because of my position.
The oxymoron of entitled leadership
The best and most effective leaders should never have a sense of entitlement. Great leaders are servant leaders. Often in leadership, entitlement can spread like a malignant tumor. Untreated, it grows and consumes until it destroys the leader. Entitlement can lead to ethical and moral compromise. Leaders can easily rationalize that their immoral or even illegal behavior is okay, just because they feel entitled.
Is there a check for leaders to avoid the snares of entitlement? I think so. First, all leaders need to constantly ask themselves if their leadership is truly servant leadership. Do they seek the best for others first?
Second, leaders can check their behavior to see if they are consistent with the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith,gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
It is my hope and prayer that more leaders will discover the true joy of servant leadership and avoid the follies of entitled leadership.
And I pray that I will be one of those leaders.
Thomas Rainer is the president and CEO LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also aformer pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm.Rainer is the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books.