Leave Ego at the Door

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by Sara Ting

Embracing diversity grows a company and its profits. Business leaders understand that diversity is a business imperative, and don’t really need to be sold on its value and benefits. However, when you get beyond color and cultural differences, there’s a deeper issue that impacts leadership. Becoming aware of it is of great benefit to an organization and, more importantly, its leader.

The first time I was confronted with the issue was in the mid 1980s. I took a very successful public-service campaign on diversity and equality we’d done in Boston and tried to duplicate it in Philadelphia. With a lot of perseverance, pieces began to fall into place. I was able to secure billboards and the endorsement from the Human Rights Commission. The last piece I needed was the money to produce the ads for the billboards.

To my amazement, as I was searching for a contributor, I discovered the city was in the process of organizing a related campaign. More importantly, I was told my message certainly fit the theme — the City of Brotherly Love. I was then directed to the organizer. I thought it would be a great meeting; the end of my mission was in sight. Boy, was I wrong!

I had an eye-opening experience that taught me an important lesson in leadership.  I talked with the organizer for over 30 minutes. He told me what I presented was a nice idea, but he couldn’t see how it would fit into the campaign. And even though I explained that I drove all the way from Boston, secured billboard space, had the endorsement of the Human Rights Commission, was directed to him with a resounding recommendation from a colleague, and that the message was well received in Boston, a city that had had severe racial tensions, the issue that divided us was deeper than the color of our skin. What stood in the way was his ego. In short, what I’d presented was not his idea. And since he was in the position to stop the campaign, he did. It never happened in Philadelphia because of his flawed leadership.

The following year, in New York, I had the opposite experience with a leader who didn’t let his ego stand in the way of a fresh idea. Upon meeting him and sharing my vision, he immediately helped put the campaign together. He brought three other organizations together to fund it and even got us press coverage. He demonstrated true leadership. It didn’t matter to him that it wasn’t his idea. What mattered was the power of the message and its success in Boston.

Today the same diversity message, which started out in Boston in 1987, has been produced into an educational tool. It’s in 30 nationwide colleges and universities including Caltech, Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M, George Washington University and the University of New Orleans. It has also inspired the creation of a landmark that will be built in the seaport district of Boston, for which over $250,000 has been donated from companies such as Deloitte and Touche, Prudential Financial, Putnam Investments, Monster.Com, Digitas, Wells Fargo, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Mintz Levin, Citizens Bank Foundation, Dental Services of Massachusetts, Staples and Randstad.

As I continue to speak with leaders across the country, what’s evident to me is how critical it is for a leader to make sure ego doesn’t interfere with good business suggestions and concepts. When ego stops innovative ideas, it can impact the growth and development of an organization, it can stop a vision and, more importantly, stop the leader from growing and evolving. A leader committed to a vision never lets ego get in the way. He or she will be focused on taking actions that fulfill the vision. This makes them more effective, and the more effective a leader is, the better he or she will lead.

Accepting our humanity helps us understand our ego and have compassion for others who may not be aware of how much their ego dominates their decisions. The first persons we need to have compassion for are ourselves. Realizing our ego has gotten in the way is the first step to making a change. Once we let go of it, it can be very liberating.  It’s a daily process of grounding ourselves in a higher vision and not be attached to being right. It can be humbling. I also believe it is important to empower those individuals who have the courage to speak their mind even if they have ideas that may differ from the leader.

Ego has no color, gender, or religion. We all have it. Having the courage to face yourself and realize when the ego is getting in the way is critical to effective leadership. How do we know when it’s in the way? It takes emotional honesty.  Self-awareness is the key to leadership and to embracing diversity. Dr. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist noted for his conceptualization of hierarchy of human needs, said, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

Until we’re aware of how much our ego impacts our judgment and actions, we’ll just continue to do what we do and get the results we get. If you’re happy with the results you’re getting, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, change something. This always starts with looking at the self. See what changes you can make that will affect the whole.  Sometimes it may be as simple as changing a perspective, other times it may be letting go of an idea or being more open.  Leadership is always about working from the inside out.

Sara Ting is principal at Ting & Associates, Diversity Training Consultants in Boston, Massachusetts. As a diversity consultant and trainer Sara has provided workshops for schools, college, universities, banks and police departments.  Her unique diversity tool is now in 30 states and 30 colleges including schools such as Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Texas A&M and Lehigh University. Her website is www.asthesun.com.

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