In a very 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.
The federal government, as the most obvious example, has 235 entitlement programs that cost the taxpayers over 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, Medicare, and Medicaid. Each program is on an unsustainable path. Their very solvency is in jeopardy.
Entitlement and the Individual
Entitlement is often used in a pejorative sense when a person thinks he or she is owed favors by an organization, families, governments, or others. On a recent trip, I heard an irate customer of an airline screaming at the gate attendant because he had not been upgraded to first class. Though the employee of the airline calmly explained that he was on a waiting list given priority according to his miles traveled, he would not accept the explanation. After all, he said, he was entitled to first class.
Similarly, I recently heard of an employee in an organization express frustration because the organization would not give him more vacation time, despite the fact that he had seven weeks of vacation and paid holidays. 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 entitlement.
When Leaders Are 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 over him.
Frankly, I am embarrassed to admit that I have yielded to the temptation of entitlement myself. I am president of a large organization with thousands of employees under my leadership. Without going into detail, I admit that I have caught myself thinking that I deserve a benefit or a perk just because I have this position. I have to remind myself that the leadership given to me is a gift for which I have a huge stewardship responsibility. I should be giving and not expecting. 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, not entitled leaders. Many times in leadership, entitlement is like a malignancy. Untreated, it grows more and consumes more until it destroys the leader. Entitlement can lead to ethical and moral compromise. Leaders begin to rationalize that their immoral or even illegal behavior is okay, because they are entitled.
Is there a check for leaders to avoid the snares of entitlement? I think so. First, that leader needs to ask himself constantly if his leadership is truly servant leadership. Does he first seek the best of others before himself?
Second, the leader can check his behaviors 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.