“Amazing! We did it, all by ourselves!”
How engaging your humanity and checking your ego at the door makes you a great leader
As leaders, sometimes managing our egos is one of the toughest challenges we face. It is the thing that when not checked is most likely to get us into trouble as well.
One of my favourite lessons from the Tao Te Ching is about leadership:
When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that she exists…
When the Master’s work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”
But does this mean that as the “Master”, the leader, you should make yourself inessential? Well, not quite:
I recently spoke to a friend who was the CEO of a well-respected charitable organisation doing vital work in a remote rural county. Budget cuts at the local authority, on whom they relied for most of their funding, cut their contribution by 50%. By some miracle, she was able to keep the doors open providing a bare bones service to the people who needed it most. One of the ways she was able to do this was by making herself redundant.
She was confiding that though she was glad that the work kept going, she was struggling with accepting that they could get along without her. We talked about the fact that that was because she had worked so hard at preparing her team for this day that she thought would probably come, that when it did, they were ready.
She accepted that, but of course emotionally it was still hard. Even knowing the service would otherwise have had to shut down only went so far in soothing her bruised ego.
Feeling needed, feeling essential, is a powerful potion for most of us. When your job involves making sure people in need get the services they rely on, or driving the function that makes your stakeholders happy with big dividends, it is easy to believe you are the lynchpin that makes it all possible.
In fact, a good leader makes herself essential by being the force that creates a team of people who can get the day to day work done without her. A leader who can be fearlessly vulnerable can create effective and capable teams without resorting to heavy-handed, labour-intensive micro-management. This in turn produces a level of self-belief and self-confidence that comes from knowing you can humbly rely on others.
These aren’t some elusive, magical skills and characteristics that only some fortunate people are born with, though. This kind of leader is in all of us.
This kind of leader is realised by bravely bringing the most human parts of ourselves to the table everyday, having checked our egos at the door.
You remind yourself that the work is not about you, it is about what you achieve as a team- for the people in need that you serve, or for the bottom line that you take pride in growing, or the reviews of the stellar product that you produce.
You lead with humanity and integrity, remembering that every person who comes in to work each day also wants to feel like they are valued and essential and that they are doing a good job. You are in the position to help each of your team members feel like this.
Letting people get on with their jobs, giving plenty of scope for autonomy and innovation, being open to alternative ways of getting things done, acknowledging good work- simple things we all want- is part of being an essential leader.
And though the work will have gotten done because of your leadership, your team will have the confidence and satisfaction of having done the work all by themselves. This makes a strong and resilient team that will keep on excelling, even in the toughest times.
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I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.