I once belonged to a networking group of about a dozen people, all leaders in our field. One of the ground rules for our networking sessions was to “check your ego at the door.” We all claimed to be “servant leaders” which would imply that our egos would be kept in check, but the reality was that when two or more successful people got together, a game of one-upmanship often ensued.
Some of these people had international reputations; others were leaders in our local community. The “ego” rule made it possible for us to meet as equals. If someone started name-dropping or praising their own achievements, another member would gently recall the rule. It got to the point that only one word was needed to rein in an inflated sense of self. “Ego,” someone would say.
I have often thought of that rule, especially when working with nonprofit boards which are usually made up of successful community leaders. I gently remind them that the most important thing about nonprofits is the mission, and I invite them to stay focused on advancing the mission of the organization rather than focusing on their individual contributions.
I am fortunate that my dad was not into hero-worship; he often said that everyone “puts his pants on one leg at a time.” No one was any more important than anyone else in my dad’s eyes. His attitude has stayed with me, and I think it has served me well. (I do have to admit, though, that I was somewhat starstruck the time I was standing next to Ray Charles at JFK Airport and when I was sitting just a few feet away from the Pope.)
Competition is a cornerstone of capitalism, and it is common to encounter successful people who love to tell you how they built up their company or scored some big deal. My eyes tend to glaze over during those monologues; I am much more interested in those who praise all the people who made their success possible.
My friend Ted was one of those people. He was a successful lawyer, well-known in his field and treated like a big deal at his work. He was very generous with his resources and often donated to the nonprofit where I worked—always requesting anonymity. “Don’t let your right hand know what your left is doing,” (Matthew 6:3) was one of his favorite Bible quotes.
I think all of this has come to mind because I am leaving my profession to embark on the next chapter of my life. When I told my boss I was leaving, she repeated something she has said to me several times since our two nonprofits merged a few years ago—she is amazed that I gave up my job as executive director and set aside my ego for the sake of the mission.
Perhaps it is unusual; for me, though, it was remembering to stay focused on the mission and to check my ego at the door.