Though ego is a strong temptress, people with humility are the ones we want to follow.
Unfortunately, American culture and academia do little to prepare us for a humble approach to leadership. On the contrary, people are encouraged to be aggressive, distinguish themselves and stand apart—things that read more like a list of antonyms for “humble.”
I’ve been in leadership roles since I was a teenager. I’ve studied and pontificated leadership in countless retreats and classes, and read more books on the subject than I can count. Yet only after enduring some rather horrific failures did I learn true humility… and leadership requires more humility than I ever imagined.
At some point, as I went through life accumulating successes and raising my position in the business world, I slipped into what I call the ego trap. I began to overestimate my personal role in those successes and believed that all the perks, benefits and advantages I received for my increasing positions were actually meant for me, that I was entitled to them.
In my business travels I would fly Business or First Class and lounge in the Red Carpet Club during layovers. Arriving at my destination, there was usually someone waiting for me to take me to my hotel, always in the heart of the city. The next day, again there was usually someone waiting to chauffeur me around, take me to lunch and dinner then deposit me back at the hotel at the end of the day.
In the end my ego led me to believe that this was all about me, a self-centered trap that grew so strong it had a gravitational pull—like a black hole—sucking everything around it into destruction.
I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I was recently having a conversation with a colleague about some of those days gone by, and humility, the topic for this month’s article, came up. This got me thinking about the most recent trip I took, after some of those horrific failures I mentioned earlier.
On this trip, I flew coach in the cheapest time slot I could find. When I landed, I took a bus to a not-very-well-known rental agency and waited in line for the least expensive car they had. Then I drove 45 minutes away from downtown to a Super 8 hotel were I was grateful for the free breakfast.
Somewhere in between those two very different types of trips it had occurred to me that all the perks and benefits I received and ultimately exploited were never meant for me. They were meant for the position I held… because I only ever deserved coach and a Super 8.
The key to leadership is self-control: primarily, the mastery of pride, which is more difficult to subdue than a wild lion.
Ultimately, I had let my ego and pride prevail and lost my humility. By contrast, successful leaders have great self-confidence, yet retain their humility and honesty. They understand that, while talented, they are not perfect and are merely servants to the positions they hold.