Sounds like an oxymoron, but all leaders will face the dilemma between the true purpose of leadership (empowering others) and the ego of leadership (getting credit) at least once in their careers. Admittedly, this is one I have struggled with. The struggle between humility and ego is one that all leaders must come to terms with. Being an invisible leader is what we all know great leadership is about, but it can be challenging – even privately – to park our egos and allow others to flourish. Verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching:
With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.
The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, “We did it all ourselves.”
Like you, I have accomplished a few things in my career so far that I am proud of and have, for the most part, been fairly successful in keeping my ego in check. That was tested a few years ago when I was part of meeting where an individual was heaping praise upon another person (not in attendance) for the great things this person had brought to our district. Now I’ll keep this purposefully vague so as not to identify individuals. My goal here is not to criticize anyone else; this is about my reaction and how my ego was tested.
Anyway, as I sat and listened to this person go on and on I quickly realized that they were praising the wrong person. I was the one primarily responsible for this so-called great thing and the voice inside my head (ego) was going crazy saying, “It was ME, It was ME…not HIM/HER.” Saying anything at that moment would have embarrassed the person; saying anything after would have done the same, and both would have been moments of self-indulgence that would only flip the embarrassment on to me as well. Thankfully I chose to say nothing, nod along with the person heaping praise, and allow the meeting to continue uninterrupted. It’s something that is definitely easier to say – or tweet – than to do, but it was definitely a moment that tested me as a leader.
We all want to be great – to leave a legacy – and the thought of being overlooked is next to impossible to embrace, but our legacy is really up for others to establish and debate. My legacy is not up to me and while I can certainly convince myself of anything about myself, that’s not my legacy.
I think the most effective leaders are often the ones where others truly believe they didn’t need a leader in the first place. The art of leadership is shifting the focus away from yourself and maintaining a kind of authentic humility that is not concerned with who gets the credit or whose name goes at the top of the list. It’s the kind of humility that uses the words we and team and us! It’s not the awe shucks kind of ‘false’ humility that is painfully transparent.
There is no mastering this. Each time these moments present themselves our egos will look for any opening to infuse a me first mindset into the conversation. As leaders, must fight our natural tendencies and remain grounded in our knowing that the greatest leaders are the ones where the people barely know one exists.