Leadership tips are available anywhere.  There are books, seminars, posters to put on the wall.  I’ll try not to repeat the most common ones.  In this article we deal with ego. 

Everyone has an ego.  If you are in a leadership position, even of your own making, then you probably have a substantial ego.  It’s not a bad thing.  A strong ego is at the heart of your self confidence.  It’s what helps you make and defend decisions, and fight off your competition.  Your ego is a critical part of who you are as a leader.  It can also work against you. 

Leadership Tip in Story Form 

Recruited to a new job in a new location, I inherited an IT organization of around 100 people.  Their reputation was that they were hard working but ineffective.  There were quality issues with systems, and projects almost never delivered on time or on budget. 

So there I am, in week two or three on the job, sitting in a meeting with 8 managers from different departments.  The group is reviewing outstanding issues on a specific project and figuring out how to address them.  Everything is being handled smoothly, and the group quickly reaches consensus — a schedule slip is required. 

This was one consensus that was achieved far too quickly for me.  I spoke up (loudly) and told the group the schedule slips had to stop.  I told them their reputation with client organizations was in the toilet, and it was time for this behavior to change or we would have to change the makeup of the management team.  I told them I didn’t relocate my family to be part of a group of losers. 

Dead Silence 

Yes, the room was very quiet for just a minute.  Then one of the managers spoke up, rather forcefully.  And all she said was, and I quote, “Don’t you ever talk to us like that”. 

Whoa, didn’t see that coming.  Moreover, I didn’t like it one bit.  I could feel the blood boiling and my face getting red.  Here I was, the new sheriff in town, and I’d just laid down the law.   

Now sports fans, a quick check of the scoreboard.  There are zero people jumping to my side of this conflict.  One brave (or stupid) manager strongly challenging my authority, and seven other people saying nothing but watching very closely to see how this game is going to end. 

My gut, fueled by my ego, told me to fire that woman on the spot, or at least toss her out of the meeting and tell the rest of the group that anyone who wanted to join her was free to go.  Somehow, somewhere I got enough common sense (something not always compatible with big egos) to declare a ten minute break. 

Everyone left the room but me, and I’m sure there were some interesting conversations that went on as folks strolled down the hall.  I had some decisions to make, fast. 

Separating Ego from What’s Really Important 

When everyone came back into the room, I think I shocked them all.  I thanked the rebellious manager for her feedback, and apologized for my behavior.  Then I quickly made clear the difference between my behavior and my position. 

The group needed to understand that the easy action of slipping the schedule should not be easy, and could no longer be an easy decision as we went forward.  How I made that point to them was wrong, but the point I made was non-negotiable.  I intended to challenge them, every day if I had to, but I promised to do so with respect, and I apologized for having been disrespectful before the break. 

That was tough.  Inside, I really was still angry at that manager who spoke out.  I didn’t know yet whether this team of people really could change their behavior and turn the organization’s performance around.   I thought my original gut instincts were more right than wrong.   

I wouldn’t hear the term ego sacrifice until a year or two after this incident, but boy did I sacrifice my ego that day.  And it hurt my pride.  Here’s the thing, though.  The hurt healed, pretty quickly.  And from that day forward, eight managers saw me differently. 

When you sacrifice your ego, you don’t wimp out.  You separate your own pride from the situation.   I didn’t yield on the importance of sticking to committed project schedules.  Starting right then schedule slips were treated as a very big deal, and there were less of them.  At the same time, I established an implicit value of mutual respect that would govern many future discussions and issues. 

What would have happened without the ego sacrifice?  It’s hard to say precisely, but the one thing that’s certain is that mutual respect as a shared value would not have taken root that day.  Regardless what might have happened to that specific project, I have no doubt that some of the improvements that group made in the following months and years would not have happened.  And my ego would have been to blame.

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