Ego & humility – which one trumphs

Leaders are egoistic by nature. Where humility exists in a leader, it is not solely due to good education or exposure to good culture, but more due to necessity, and/or compulsion.

In Organizing Genius, Bennis and Beiderman say, “The best thing a leader can do for a Great Group is to allow its members to discover their greatness,” referring to a leadership with ego and servant hood in equilibrium. It is the right environment for great groups (teams) to come up with groundbreaking innovations. Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author, in his book, “The Five Temptations of a CEO,” highlights ego as one.

Disney envisioned hitherto undreamt of possibilities to build a financial empire; but it was too complex for him to execute single-handed and hired hundreds of others with varying skills to assemble his dream and make it work. If Disney were too egoistic as to be the solo shining star, and lacking in humility to share the glory with others, his dream would never have found fulfillment. Humility at times could be a Hobson’s choice; an outlook forced on a leader due to his/her inability to realize a vision except through collaboration or teamwork.

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” who is credited with having developed the concept of “Level 5” leadership, identifies the Level 5 group as leaders who can “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. Their ambition is first and foremost for the institutions, not themselves.”

We often see some high-profile CEOs dominating news headlines bragging about their own strategies and importance; but really great leaders remain faceless and in the shadows focused on the successes of their organizations rather than their own.

Steve Job’s (Co-founder and present CEO of Apple Inc.) career provides a good example of a leader/innovator gone through the metamorphosis from a highly egoist approach to a present more down-to-earth approach bordering humility. Steve had always been an exceptionally brilliant designer/innovator. However, his highly egoist approach alienated even his close work allies from him. Finally, he was let go from the company he founded by the very person he hired to jointly manage it! After being thrown into the wilderness, he again worked his way up founding 2 great new companies in Pixar and NeXT while continuing with his innovative and designing brilliance.

Several years later (in June 2005), addressing graduates at the Stanford University, Steve said, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Continuing, he went on to say, “Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance,” in an obvious reference to Apple’s iPod, iTunes etc.

Being fired from Apple taught Steve many important lessons; and he re-emerged with a healthier ego – that keeps one from thinking too highly or too humbly about oneself. The finale to this episode comes through a picture of Steve Jobs appearing on the front cover of a recent Fortune magazine; but by contrast, he is portrayed with a small group of people on a two-spread inside. This conveys that Steve has transformed from an egoistic state to a more moderate state of humility. We also have a lesson to learn: humility serves as a powerful antidote to an unhealthy ego. We have two options for greater achievements: do we humble ourselves, or wait till life humbles us?

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had a unique way of winning over bargaining international opponents by employing an approach akin to humility that is called “labeling” in professional circles. His modus operandi was to flatter the opposing negotiators by telling them that their country and the people were held in high esteem worldwide for their cooperativeness and fair mindedness; giving them a label of reputation that they would feel obliged to uphold. Thus, President Sadat succeeded in indirectly transforming the opponents’ decisions and courses of action to be compatible with what he really wanted. Even Henry Kissinger, the master negotiator said in 1982 that he was highly impressed and sometimes amazed at the way President Sadat managed to get his own way at international negotiating tables.

There is no doubt that humility triumphs far more often than the ego. Ego is an obstacle for a leader to achieve to his/her best potential. Humility opens minds and creates opportunities for change. It can act as a bridge for turning silence or bitter argument into vigorous rewarding debate.

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