Three Mantras to Keep Your Ego in Check

Posted 01.29.2010

Zen_exec1 Leaders have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, it’s important to leverage the footprint of the role that you’re in. As I said in a webinar on leading at the next level for Government Executive magazine yesterday, there are certain things that only you can do given the leadership role that you’re in. That brings us to “on the other hand.”  On the other hand, as you leverage that leadership footprint, it’s really important to remember that much of your capacity to get things done flows from the role and not because you’re God’s gift to leadership.

This lesson was powerfully brought home to me about 10 years ago when I announced I was leaving my corporate vice president’s job in a month to start my coaching business. I was amazed at how quickly my calendar went from being jammed to being able to drive a truck through the white space. Same thing with my e-mail inbox and my voice mail. Empty and empty. Once people knew I was leaving, they moved on to life after Scott.
I read a funny story that illustrates the same dynamic in Al Kamen’s In the Loop column in the Washington Post this morning. As a follow up to the State of the Union address this week, Kamen was writing about the tradition of one cabinet member leaving Washington to ensure continuity of government in case disaster strikes during the speech. He shared this story about former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman who was the designated out of towner during the 1997 State of the Union:

For the 1997 speech, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman headed up to New York for dinner with his daughter in Manhattan. He flew on a small Air Force jet with a security detail, the "suitcase," and a doctor, he recalled Thursday. He was taken in a small motorcade to his daughter's apartment building.

The detail stayed downstairs while Glickman watched the speech. As soon as it was over, they called up and told him, "The mission is terminated." They took off and left Glickman and his daughter, unable to hail a cab, to walk 12 blocks to dinner in the pouring rain. "Ah, the fleeting limits of power," he observed.

Great story, huh? Leaders need to protect themselves and the people they lead by keeping their egos in check. Sometimes, like I did or Dan Glickman did, you’ll get a cosmic reminder to do so. A lot of the time you won’t. So, as a public service to leaders walking that fine line between leveraging the footprint of their role and not letting their ego run away with them, I offer three mantras to regularly repeat to oneself:

  • It’s not about me, it’s about the role. It’s not about me, it’s about the role.
  • The fun stuff that comes with my job doesn’t belong to me. The fun stuff that comes with my job doesn’t belong to me.
  • This, too, shall pass. This, too, shall pass.

For best effect, spend at least five minutes a day with your eyes closed repeating one of the mantras over and over again to yourself. It’s probably best that you do this in private. People get nervous when they see leaders talking to themselves.

What mantras do you use to keep yourself grounded?