Spirit At Work -- No Wallflowers At The Top

Dec. 21, 2004
Inspirational leadership requires the energy of a strong ego.

The ego has taken a bad rap over the years. Much of this criticism, especially about the Texas-sized egos of some corporate leaders, is envy-based and denies the reality of life. Strong egos and corporate leaders go together like Lewis and Clark. Without healthy egos, little would be accomplished on this planet. Imagine a world led by shy, retiring wallflowers. Criticizing leaders with strong egos misses the point. The real issue is: Which is leading -- the ego or the soul? If the ego is out front, the priority becomes the self or the personality, and this leads to selfishness, arrogance, aggression, and the need to dominate and control. If the soul is out front, the priority changes to serving others. It is the heart and mind that decides what leads the leader, because this is where values are determined, and this regulates the emphasis between altruism (the soul) and selfishness (the ego). As leaders, we need to give ourselves permission to engage the world with our strong egos. If you or others have ever challenged the size of your ego, just remember that Mother Teresa was no shy, retiring wallflower either! We need to understand that possessing a healthy -- that is, soul-guided, other-focused -- ego is not only an attractive leadership trait, it is an essential prerequisite for effective decision making and servant leadership. "Servant leadership" is the term coined by the late Robert K. Greenleaf, author and director of management research at AT&T Corp. in the 1950s and '60s. Inspirational leaders are servant-leaders first, dedicating their strong egos to the service of others. Leaders must have self-confidence and courage in order to stand up for what they really believe in and to remain open to new thinking while being resolutely committed to their ideas and the quest for higher ground. All this is not possible without the energy of a strong ego. The purpose of the strong but altruistic ego is to serve others, and, when it does so most effectively, it does something even greater-it serves the soul. When we do this, we are always an inspiration to others and ourselves. It is a balance of ego and soul. When our egos seek only to serve ourselves, we degenerate into egocentricity. When corporate leaders behave this way, they may justly be accused of hubris and of strutting their outsized egos. If, on the other hand, we abandon our egos, failing to take sufficient care of our own needs, we wander to asceticism (rigorous self-denial) and we are of little value to ourselves or to others. It is ironic that so many leaders feel they have dedicated themselves fully to their organizations, their colleagues, and their customers, and yet, like Rodney Dangerfield, feel they don't get respect. Often this self-perception is real and is caused by persistently manipulative behavior, masquerading as a desire to serve others when in reality it is a means to better serve themselves. You know the type: They can't ever seem to do anything without attaching strings or harboring some ulterior motive. Leaders who inspire come to terms with their own egos, warts and all, and then dedicate their lives to serving others. Think about it. All of the greatest leaders in history have been servant-leaders and in doing so have become an inspiration to others-and themselves-not just for their lifetimes but in many cases for generations to come. The inspirational leader then, is a servant leader who discovers the exquisite space between self-sacrifice and self-indulgence, the magic space that inspires a legend -- Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi -- and, if we serve enough, you and me. Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the 1999 International Caring Award, presented by the Caring Institute, Washington. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books). Secretan can be reached at [email protected]

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