“Are we carrying around things that make us poor leaders?”
It’s easy to collect things, harder to let them go. But as leaders we have to be aware that some of those things, one in particular, can get in our way and prevent us from leading as effectively as we’d like.
Pile of Things
There’s a monstrous pile of stuff in my garage. I like to think of it as organized, but in the end it’s still a big pile of stuff.
We are moving to a new place (again). This one is my 20th if you count since I was born. That’s a new place about every two and a half years for 50+ years.
The frequent moves have kept us comparatively light and mobile, but it still surprises me how much stuff we have accumulated.
Right now we’re putting it all in a pile in the garage at the new place. We have to be careful how we stack it so that we can still get in the door.
Some of that stuff is still in boxes that haven’t been opened in years. You can tell because of the colorful stickers from several moving companies. The boxes contain clothes, toys, framed pictures, tools, notes, and books. Lots of books.
Everything in that pile had an intended purpose, but not everything is useful any more. Some of it never was.
And carrying a lot of stuff around comes at a cost.
In the opening to the ‘non-fiction novel’ The Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien itemizes what he and his Soldier buddies carried on patrol in Vietnam. From packets of Kool-Aid, sewing kits and P-38 can openers, to jungle boots, C-rations, and canteens of water, he lists the physical item and it’s weight
I’ve carried most of those things myself; that stuff can get heavy. It can slow you down.
As the book progresses, O’Brien begins to detail other things he and his men carried that didn’t have physical weight, but impeded their movement nonetheless. Things like responsibility, guilt, expectation. Each of these things carried weight, too.
Some of the “stuff” their leader was carrying distracted him, ultimately resulting in the loss of one of the men.
That’s not good. Leaders have to stay focused on what’s important. And we don’t have to be veterans to collect the kinds of stuff that can get in the way of good leadership.
A Giant Target
Can we give that distracting stuff a name? Yes, I think a big chunk of it we can call ego.
In Harvard Business Review Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter call ego the “Enemy of Good Leadership.” They liken our egos to a target we carry around. Every time our ego is fed, the target grows a little bit bigger.
If we’re not careful it can grow so large that soon we are tripping over it, blocked by it, hemmed in like so many boxes blocking the door.
Overloaded with our self-conceit, the people around us will have to edge their way around it, tip-toe through it, or worse – use it to control our movements.
Have you ever had your “authority” challenged? Felt slighted or insulted? Disrespected? How are we supposed to respond? We feel compelled to assert, to retaliate, to dominate, and to defend.
Those set reactions are boxes of stuff blocking the paths we might be smarter to take.
Maybe the idea someone proposed is good, but they called our idea “dumb” in the process. Where does our attention go?
Too often we focus on our wounded pride at the expense of finding the best answer for the team.
Our ego’s in the way.
But how do we remove those piles of ego blocking the path?
One word: Riddance.
Riddance is an underused noun meaning “the act or fact of clearing away or out, as anything undesirable.”
More commonly it’s heard in the phrase “good riddance,” which is a “welcome relief or deliverance from something.”
How do we get some riddance going?
In dealing with physical stuff, neatness Meuse Marie Kondo counsels to hold something up and ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?” And if not, lovingly let it go.
At our new place, everything is subject to potential riddance. If we do end up carrying it into the house, it will have to have a clear place, a use, and maybe “spark a little joy.”
Some things, like all those books, I’m even making a special place for so I can finally take them out of the boxes they’ve been in.
The decisions with our stuff can be hard, but losing some of that ego overload can be even more challenging.
Losing the Overload
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Here are some ideas.
Go on an Ego diet. If people know that our ego is hungry, some will go out of their way to feed it. A better alternative is to try to surround ourselves with smart people who have the confidence to speak up, even at the risk of inflicting an ego bruise. Then, we have to be smart enough to listen to them.
Exercise a little gratitude. For every success, even small ones, pause for a moment and think about who on the team contributed. Then give them a little recognition – a positive word, a pat on the back, write them a note. Putting the spotlight on them takes it off us, and helps keep that ego down to a healthy size.
Share the load. When we begin to think that we are the only ones with the answers we are adding weight again, but that’s not our job. Our function is to combine the brains around us in ways that even better ideas can emerge. As Ben Brearley reminds us at Thoughtful Leader, when we do this, our teammates will feel valued and become more engaged.
Focus on learning. Ken and Scott Blanchard suggest balancing the weight of our ego by being open to learning from other people. One way they suggest is to have a teammate teach us something we don’t know. I think another is to simply focus on asking good questions. Inherent in the question is the recognition that the person we are talking with has something of value to share.
Let others lead. Nor do we have to always carry the full weight of leading on every task. We can look for the potential among our teammates and invest some time to develop it. Instead of seeing someone else leading as a challenge to our own position, see it as an opportunity to strengthen the team.
Overloaded – The Takeaway
Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership reminds us of a final good reason to reduce the overload. If we’re leading, we’re probably pretty busy, juggling dozens of things at once. But not everything we juggle is of equal value.
Some things are made of glass; we stand to lose something real and valuable if we drop them, things like trusting relationships.
Ego is not one of those things. Nobody is really hurt if we let that one fall, so lovingly let it go.
In that spirit, I wish us all good riddance. Find the glass balls and focus on them.
Everything else is subject to review.
Except the books…I’m keeping the books.