Leggo My Ego

That’s not a misspelling. By ego, I mean a person’s sense of self-importance—not the crispy, fluffy, and delicious frozen waffle. At a recent Bison LeaderLink Leadership Panel, the speakers were asked what the most important characteristic was for a leader. Humility was one of the first mentioned, but then Sarah Roberts, VP of Programs for the Inasmuch Foundation, said “Lack of ego.”

When we think of ego, there are several definitions that come to mind. In Freud’s Elements of Personality, the Ego helps to control and moderate the desires of the more primal Id. From this comes the more general concept of the ego as the “I” or self of any person as thinking, feeling, willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought. Then there is the definition I believe Sarah had in mind and that I wish to explore: the sense we can have that we are more important than other people.

In this sense, ego is the opposite of humility which is a modest or low view of one’s own importance. It is critical that we understand this as it is meant. Humility is a low view of one’s importance, not a low view of oneself. John Ruskin wrote:

“The first test of a truly great man is his humility. By humility I don’t mean doubt of his powers or hesitation in speaking his opinion, but merely an understanding of the relationship of what he can say and what he can do.”

Humility is not a lack of embarrassment; that is simply lack of social awareness. Humility is not constantly denying one’s capability or downplaying one’s opinion; that is low self-esteem and is usually accompanied by a high ego. Humility is not avoiding recognition; that is false humility.

So, what is humility and how does it apply to leadership? Harvard Business School Dean, Nitin Nohria, speaking to the Harvard graduating class of 2016, identified three types of humility: intellectual, moral, and personal.

Intellectual humility reminds me that no matter how smart I am, or how much I have accomplished, I can always learn from others. I will not learn from others I consider “less than.” I will not learn from others if I, and they, believe I already have all the answers. I will not learn from others if I am too consumed with my own ideas and with being right.

Practicing intellectual humility requires that I value the ideas and accomplishments of others as highly as my own. This can be difficult for leaders because we are ultimately responsible for the outcomes of our teams. However, I can start by acknowledging that I am not in control and must rely on the capabilities of my team members and then continue forward till I am actively seeking their input and trusting their ideas.

Moral humility is being aware that no matter how confident I am in my moral compass, I am always vulnerable to losing my way. One of the pitfalls of success is the tendency it has to convince us that we are better, stronger, or smarter than those around us. This arrogance (lack of humility) makes us susceptible to ethical and moral failure from recklessness if not kept in check. We can all recall multiple examples of leaders who have had significant moral or ethical failures which derailed their careers and visions.

Moral humility requires structure and consistency. For myself, I have a spiritual mentor, a therapist, and a recovery community with whom I practice honesty and transparency. They are the first to see any shift or drift in me from a course of honesty with myself and others which could be the first step toward an ethical or moral morass.

Finally, personal humility involves listening well, giving and accepting praise, and celebrating other’s wins. Lao Tzu once said,

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Personal humility is not delegating my responsibility, but it is trusting others’ judgement and ideas and then being truly pleased when they do well.

Humble leaders believe in the equal value of everyone, demonstrate their care by paying attention to them and trusting them, and protect their own integrity with whatever means are necessary. Great leaders lack ego and elevate the people around them. Humility is the key to a community that helps everyone become better and supports everyone’s success, and it is the Bison Way.