“What’s in it for me?” is a Self-Leadership Question

This quote was reprinted in big bold letters in my neighborhood association’s newsletter, and the contrarian in me immediately took notice and started to shake her head in disagreement.

“Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, “What’s in it for me?”

~ Brian Tracy

The voice of servant leadership speaks in Mr. Tracy’s quote, and the altruistic person within all of us wants him to be right. However there is so much evidence otherwise.

Let’s face it: We all know very successful people who are very selfish, and got to what others will view as success (for it’s a relative concept) by asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

It’s a great question.

Self-coaching is self-questioning

“What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) is one of my favorite coaching conversations to have with managers for two specific reasons: Proactive choice and decision ownership. I will ask them to use the WIIFM question in self-coaching, suggesting they ask themselves that question often, perhaps daily, because it helps them focus on why they are doing whatever it is they are doing at any given time.

Said another way, contrary to Mr. Tracy’s assertion, “What’s in it for me?” can get us to be more successful than we might presently be! It can help us make far better choices, and it can help us completely own the decisions we make connected to those choices. We become sure. We become value grounded.

Den Neva Mine

Waking up to our moment of choice

We are all bombarded with different choices in every single moment of the day. When I ask myself “what’s in it for me?” I am trying to focus better, and be both deliberate and self-disciplined with the actions I am purposely choosing to take. No sleepwalking, automatic pilot, or going through the motions in my blind kowtow to some sacred cow which really should be put out to pasture.

Focus, deliberate action and self-discipline are all necessary to get to your Ho‘ohana, your on-purpose work.

Ho‘ohana work is intentional work

Your Ho‘ohana is the work you do on purpose, with passion, and with deliberate intentions, consistently seeking to match up your attentions to that intention. Ho‘ohana is your value-connected work. It might be your job, it might not.

From the Archives: What’s your Calling? Has it become your Ho‘ohana?

Who’s in charge here?

I am also making absolutely sure that I am in charge of me.

That means I am not working on someone else’s plan for me. No blame, no excuses, no justifications. Only intentional my Ho‘ohana actions: Buck stops with me.

So when we ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” we are self-checking our intentions and our attentions.

  • Does “it” make me more effective and more productive?
  • Does “it” help me be more mindful and intentional about where my daily attentions should be?
  • Does “it” give me more energy, or drain it away from me so I have nothing left to give?
  • Is “it” in complete alignment with the values I am committing to upholding in my life? Will “it” help me be sure I walk my talk and talk my walk?
  • Will “it” improve the working relationships I have with other people when I am being the authentic me? How about the emotional relationships I have with them?

When the answer to those kinds of self-coaching questions is an emphatic “Yes, it will!” that is the kind of success I want to have. Ho‘ohana deliberate success.

What about you?

Can you ask the WIIFM question and still be a servant leader?

Absolutely! You can have the good results which come about as a result of their pairing.

I have found that Ho‘ohana deliberate success very naturally translates into serving other people better: It’s a win for everyone involved because we have made it our Kuleana, our personal responsibility, to only operate at our best.

I’ll bet that your better answers to “What’s in it for me?” will do the same thing for you. There is just one caveat, a crucially important one: Always answer the question with your personal values, for that is the authentic, self-aware you. And please understand this: I won’t impose my values on you, but I will challenge you to live and work within the truth and integrity of yours.

The successful person never hides from who they are.

Self-leadership requires self-awareness, and the self-attuned person will be successful.

And yes, that is my opinion about success, however I must say I’ve yet to be proven wrong about it. I agree with Mr. Forbes:

Success follows doing what you want to do.
There is no other way to be successful.

~ Malcolm Forbes

Let’s talk story.
Any thoughts to share?

For those who prefer them, here are the Talking Story copies of the links embedded in this posting:

~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i”
July 2009 ~
“What’s in it for me?” is a Self-Leadership Question


  1. says

    Rosa – Mahalo for helping me see the self-coaching perspective of the “what’s in it for me?” question – – I’ve always tended to that question in terms of others. Always making sure everyone else’s WIIFM was handled in terms business strategies, career development plans, performance assessments, etc. – – never consciously asking that question of myself. With your help, I realize that answering the WIIFM question for myself does not invade the value I place on my role as a servant leader. If anything, it helps me to clarify my intentions. Many thanks :) With Aloha, LLR

  2. says

    I love this post, Rosa. You are absolutely correct that being a servant leader and asking “What’s in it for me?” are quite compatible. Asking the question doesn’t mean that you don’t seek to do things that help others.
    It’s also important to realize that you can’t give a drink from an entry cup. Sometimes asking the question about what’s in it for me also gets to “what does this demand from me.”
    And bosses, as much as any other people thrive on interesting and meaningful work. The WIIFM question goes right to that.

  3. Rosa Say says

    Aloha Lorraine, thank you for your comment, I so appreciate your empathy and your openness. As a fellow coach I can also empathize with you: We help others by profession so naturally, that sometimes the need to self-coach can be as startling as a bucket of cold water thrown at us — at least that’s how it is for me!

    Aloha Wally, I LOVE your add! “What does this demand from me” is a fabulous self-coaching question – a crucial understanding. The last part of your comment makes me smile with the memory of so many different faces too… faces where that aha! moment dawns when they’re asked, “and what about your boss? What do you think this would mean to him/ her?”