I have studied literature in leadership and spirituality and have found a common thread. The common thread is this: if you want to be successful and fulfilled you need to keep your ego in check.
The ego is that part of us that is always asking: “But what about me?” or saying “Look at me!” The lesson I’ve found in these fields of study and in my own life is that when we focus on our ego needs we can, at best, create a temporary success. Often our ego gets in the way, creating pain and suffering. If we want to build a good life, a good company, or a good relationship, we need to take the focus off our individual need to win, to be right, or to receive the glory.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, did extensive research to find companies that achieved greatness. He found companies that had been mediocre for years and then became great companies, creating a sustainable success. These companies outperformed their competitors several times over. Collins found that all of the leaders of these great companies demonstrate “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are somewhat self-effacing individuals who deflect adulation, yet who have an almost stoic resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.”
These leaders, according to Collins, look in the mirror, directing their attention to themselves when problems arise. They take full responsibility. When successes occur they look out their window, directing praise and credit to those who serve with them. These leaders work in concert with other leaders to cocreate a great organization. (References to Jim Collin’s work found in the article, “The Misguided Mix-Up of Celebrity and Leadership” found at www.jimcollins.com in the articles section)
In 1978, in Superbowl XXII, the highly touted Denver Broncos football team were beaten by the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys played with precision and focus, executing plays that were impossible to defend. After the game, one of the Broncos said: “Dallas beat us because we were focused on winning, and they were focused on football.” The ego wants to win, but a focus on winning has us forgetting what it takes to get there. True winning comes from playing the game well and playing it as a team.
Today we have many celebrity CEO’s, authors, actors, athletes, politicians, and TV personalities. Fame, rather than being a result of doing something well, is often an end in itself. There is nothing wrong with fame. The question is, if you are seen as a leader, as someone to be admired, what lasting value are you creating? Would others do well to follow the example you set? Does your example inspire others to express their own greatness?
A recent book, Made to Stick (Heath and Heath), mentions studies that have shown that people who listen to a charismatic speaker often can’t remember anything the speaker said. Speakers who were memorable, that is, their message stuck, were able to connect with their audience through anecdotes and well structured messages.
It is the ego in us that has us placing premium value on egocentric personalities to lead us and be our models. Data and experience suggest that we might better focus on doing what we do well. It suggests that we might focus our attention on building up others, mentoring, and helping them. It suggests that the playing field may be more level than we thought, that anyone can build success if they can step outside of their ego and do something well. Charisma and attractiveness are as much liabilities as they are assets.
Humility, channeling one’s energy in to something bigger than the self, cocreation, clear focus, and connectedness to others–these are all traits that fall into the realm of spirituality. These traits don’t seem to fit with today’s idea of great leadership–the swash buckling, egotistical, celebrity who swoops in and saves the day, the superstar athlete, or the charismatic speaker. Yet, we see that the true winners of today, the highly successful leaders, possess these traits.
If you are a leader, focus on leading well. Don’t make the organization dependent on the force of your personality, but create systems and structure that promote success and well-being. When we shift our focus from looking good and self glorification to serving well, and to doing the best possible work, we create organizations, products, and services that are both great and sustainable. You probably aren’t going to get rid of your ego anytime soon, but you will need to transcend it often if you want to be truly successful in what you do.
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