You are no one special

02 January, 2024

Don’t forget why and how you became a leader in the first place. Find your way back to the basics.

The ego is meant to look after us, to care for us and protect us, and perhaps come looking for us when we seem to be lost. But when we identify completely with that protective figure, we lose the more important story and halt the possible transformation, David Whyte, poet and author.

My wife Roopi pointed me to a fascinating article by Budhist teacher, Sandy Boucher, “We are in Training to be Nobody Special”. In the article, she writes:

Out in the world, isn’t it good to be someone special? The best-looking, the smartest, the most charming, the strongest?

Boucher elaborates how our craving to feel special often leads to arrogance and self-centredness. She strives to surrender the expectation of being better than others. As she focuses less on herself, she learns to become more open, more present, more connected, and more awakened:

The most admirable people, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, would seem to be tremendously special. But if we view them in all their associations and interconnections—ethnic, family, training—all the conditions that made them what they are, they do not stand alone. They were able to have a great effect on the world because they were expressing the awareness and aspirations of those around them. They make great contributions not because they are separate and special but because they are so intimately connected to their world and thus able to embody empathy and compassion for all living beings.

Can leaders today take inspiration from this idea as well? Many of us get fixated with the false trappings of power, position, and prestige. We start thinking we are special and put ourselves on a pedestal. Over time, surrounded by the fog of self-importance, we lose our way. We forget why how and why we became leaders in the first place and what is expected of us.

History is rife with examples of leaders who had it all, and then lost it all. Very few leaders actually start with chasing money and power. Unfortunately, over time, they get blind sighted, lose their grounding, and let their narcissistic desires take over.

So today, in my first post for 2024, my message is about getting back to the basics of leadership. How can we remind ourselves on how and why we became leaders in the first place? And what steps can we take to rediscover and recommit ourselves to the fundamentals of leadership?

The perils of ego

As leaders climb higher up the ladder and gain bigger perks, they run the risk of becoming insular. The corner office, the generous bonus, the VIP treatment…it can go to your head! It’s easy to get trapped in a sense of your own importance and become disconnected from people around you.

Ultimately, you end up in a bubble where you only see and hear what you want to see and hear. And when that happens, when you lose your finger on the pulse of the organization, then you cannot lead effectively.

Ultimately, you end up in a bubble where you only see and hear what you want to see and hear. And when that happens, when you lose your finger on the pulse of the organization, then you cannot lead effectively.

Arrogance also makes leaders more prone to crossing ethical lines. A Harvard Business Review article observes:

As we rise in the ranks, we acquire more power [which] tickles the ego. And when the ego is tickled, it grows…. When we’re caught in the grip of the ego’s craving for more power, we lose control. It corrupts our behavior, often causing us to act against our values.

Finally, an inflated ego acts as a roadblock to learning and growth. If a leader believes they are always right, always the smartest person in the room, it leaves them no room to explore different perspectives and expand their horizons.

Remember that leadership is not about you

Perhaps the most important lesson to recall is that leadership is not about you. The role of a leader has become so glamourized that it’s easy to believe they are the be-all and end-all. In fact, the real focus of leadership is other people — your team, your organization, your customers, your partners and bringing out the best in others. Frances Frei, the co-author of a book on empowering leadership, puts it beautifully:

A lot has been written about how leaders can be more leader-ly, and a lot of it is self-absorbed… We’ve been teaching people to look in the mirror, but I want to change the mirror to a window.

At its core, leadership is a privilege and an act of service. Leaders are placed in a position that gives them immense influence over the careers and lives of tens, hundreds or even thousands of people. Let us never forget that our primary role is to support and serve their interests.

There is a famous saying by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, which captures this sentiment aptly:

When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’

Rediscover the basics

Drawing on the themes above, here are seven practical steps to liberate your leadership from getting misguided:

1. Rethink those perks.

Take a long, hard look at the privileges that come with your position. Some of these, no doubt, help you perform your role more effectively. But others may just be pandering to your ego and causing you to lose touch with people around you.

Cees ‘t Hart, the former CEO of Carlsberg, chose to give up his upper-floor corner office and private elevator access to avoid the dangers of insularity. Are there certain benefits you, too, could forego to keep your feet closer to the ground?

2. Say no to yes-people.

An inflated ego doesn’t take criticism or dissent well. As team members realize this, they start agreeing with everything the leader says. Confirmation bias runs unchecked, narrowing the leader’s vision and hampering decision-making. To guard against this tendency, surround yourself with knowledgeable, confident people and give them the freedom to challenge you and offer their inputs.

3. Listen to those who truly care about you.

Who can tell even the most powerful leaders the unvarnished truth about themselves? True friends, of course, who are not impressed by your titles or your wealth. Be it your old college buddy, your most trusted associate or your life partner, never stop listening to the people who know you best. They are your most effective reality check.

4. Nurture gratitude and humility.

Ego grows to unhealthy proportions when you start believing that you are the sole driver of your success. The antidote is to actively focus on the people who support you in countless ways.

Every evening, take a few moments to reflect on all those who helped you along on this day — from your team to the administrative staff, from your family to your domestic helpers. Send a silent message of gratitude to each of them. This practice helps us remember that all achievements are a collective effort.

5. Take accolades with a pinch of salt.

An article in the HBR advises leaders to accept praise, but never believe it totally:

Ancient Romans had a tradition of welcoming home victorious military commanders with a state-sponsored procession that included the commander riding in his chariot. Legend has it that a slave standing next to him would hold a golden laurel above his head and whisper into his ear, “Remember you are mortal.” True or not, it is a good lesson for anyone who achieves success to remind himself that success is earned, not bestowed. You need to keep earning it.

6. Reflect on failures.

One of the skills we tend to lose as leaders is the ability to admit our mistakes. We want to be seen as infallible beings, above all errors and shortcomings. Hence, a frank assessment of our failures can be a good way to keep our heads on straight.

What are some poor decisions you’ve made recently? What are some of the opportunities you’ve missed? What do you wish you had done differently? Along with a better perspective, this exercise also paves the way for learning and self-improvement.

7. Accept checks and balances.

Who doesn’t love the freedom to make their own decisions? But for leaders, unlimited power comes with the risk of a shrinking perspective and loss of self-control. I’m sure you know of brilliant leaders whose difficult behaviours worsened with growing success, to the point where people around them operated under a constant state of fear, panic and resentment.

So, resist the temptation to fight against healthy checks and balances. By introducing limits to your authority, such measures help to reign in ego and create the right conditions for good judgment and stability.

Confidence and conviction are indispensable traits for leaders. But when these morph into making leaders believe that they are special or above others, they lose their way. They become preoccupied with the superficialities of power, rank and status, forgetting that leadership at its core is about other people. As the new year begins, now is a good time for all of us to recommit to leadership in its truest form — as a privilege and an act of service.


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