The Inner Journey to Leadership

I smile when I think about the journey I’ve taken with my ego. My earliest memories of my ego is somewhere between 13 – 15. At that point, my ego served to ‘protect’ me. Like most boys coming of age (whatever that means), there is a lot of nervousness about not embarrassing myself, having fun, and trying to become who the ego persona was projecting me to be. It’s like I was becoming someone until I knew who I really needed to become.

Then there is the whole issue of size. My brother gained his size (height and a lot of his weight) by the time he was in 9th grade. Me, I was 6’ tall by my junior year, but was still 156 pounds when I graduated from high school. I was a pretty good athlete, but it seemed to me that many others were much better. I struggled for confidence. It wasn’t all the time, and it started to get better by the time I headed for college.

It was necessary to take my ego with me. I still needed ‘protected.’ College, by its very nature if you are paying attention, is designed to provide you the opportunity to challenge what you believe, why you believe it, and do you still want to believe it. The biggest challenge might be the challenge to who you are becoming and whether that’s who you want to be. One other challenge is whether you belong there. There is a lot, or for me A LOT, to adjust to. Some of those challenges (be they classes, professors, relationships, etc.) really pushed me. I learned a lot about resilience and perseverance. Funny thing, the more I overcame the bigger my ego became. I don’t think it was out of hand or obnoxious (think: arrogant). Let me tell you a story that might conclude something else.

Fast forward six years out of college. I had just been promoted to Vice President. I was proud of that. Then, it came time to pick out a nameplate for my desk. I thought I’d ‘earned’ something nice. It was nice, and expensive. There was at least one person who made fun of me; and likely others. It wasn’t until later that I reflected on that decision and realized that that was a decision born out of my ego. Suddenly, I was being seen in a way that was not me. Not who I wanted to be. Since we’re talking about ego, let me share some information about the ego to provide some common ground of understanding

“The ego is the mind’s identity of our own construction, an identity which is false. We are more than just the mind.  If we take all the beliefs of what we are – beliefs about our personality, talents, and abilities – we have the structure of our ego.  These talents, abilities and aspects of our personality will be attributes of our skills, but the mental construct of our “self” is artificial.  And while this description might make the ego seem like a static thing, it is not. Rather, it is an active and dynamic part of our personalities, playing an immense role in creating emotional drama in our lives.” Continuing. “The ego is difficult to see, because it hides behind opinions that appear true – our attachment to descriptions of our identity – and because we haven’t practiced looking.  You can get a glimpse by noticing certain thoughts, similar to those listed above.  The easier way to spot the ego is by the trail of emotional reactions it leaves behind: Anger at a loved one, a need to be right, a feeling of insecurity in certain situations, feelings of jealousy that are unexplained, the need to impress someone, and so on.  These emotions can be attributed to the false beliefs that comprise the ego.  In the beginning it is easier to see the symptoms of resulting emotions and drama, rather than the ego that caused it.” (Pathway to Happiness article 2/26/13)

I came to understand that the normal course of our evolution is a series of situations where we are creating credibility. We start building credibility in school, and then when we go to work. It is a time to prove that we can do what we are given to do, and beyond. We are also proving our trustworthiness, and other character traits that open doors of relationships and other opportunities. That journey continues to ‘feed’ our identity. I think I wanted to also self-promote when there were opportunities to talk about those things that went well and my role.

And then…

I never thought of myself as a ‘control freak,’ a person who wanted to be in charge and reluctantly, if ever, relinquished control to others. Yet, as I crossed the threshold from being responsible for myself to having responsibility for others, there was some ‘unrest’ in my thinking. When I was being evaluated based on the merits of my own work it was simple. I knew what I needed to do to earn high marks. When I took on responsibility for the work of a unit or an organization, the work of other people became more of how I was evaluated. That initially wasn’t a comfortable place. It was easier when it was just me.

This began the journey of ‘giving up control.’ Part of that necessitated a change in thinking. I used to think that I could influence another sufficiently to get most of what I wanted. I came to understand that my influence was a function of the quality of my relationships and wasn’t about ‘getting what I wanted.’ I began to understand that by helping you to get what you wanted I often got more of what I wanted. I began to understand that leadership was more about serving others than it was about being served. I would say that this journey began to take place in my late 20’s. It continues today.

I believe this ‘inner’ evolution required that I spend more time ‘awake and aware’ of my surroundings, interactions, the affect I was having on others and they were having on me; my self-talk, what I reflected on, the changes I was making and why. I don’t know where the ‘line’ was for me, but I began to notice that I didn’t have to ‘prove’ myself in the same way as I used to. My responsibilities became more about helping others to be successful, developing them to their highest capacity. That included having others take the lead, to encourage and give credit. It also brought some shift in language, “How can I best help you meet your goals?” That was the people side. The operations part of my job had more to do with vision, strategy, and execution.

The increased relinquishing of control influenced my ego. The path I was on began to lessen the need for my ego to ‘protect me’. As my true self emerged, I would describe my relationship with my ego as one of ‘dynamic tension.’ After all these years of ‘protecting’ me he/she did not like taking a backseat. He seemed insecure that his role was diminishing.  One of the by-products of this dynamic was that I felt more true confidence and peace in who I was becoming. I began to take things around me less personally. I began to make less assumptions. By my late 30’s I began to understand more and more that my journey to my true self involved more humility. This birthed a greater respect for others, for their journey, inviting them into discussion and listening for their ideas and thoughts. A subtler shift, that brought a smile to my face, was noticing that I didn’t need to be right all the time.

I believe this is a good place to pause. The story is far from over, but the next portion of the path has to deal with continued maturation of humility and an important and powerful lesson about surrender, that continues to influence me and the way I lead.

Until next time.

Toward a better you…