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Leadership Lesson: Never Make It About You

As a consultant, I get to work with lots of brilliant, successful people. And you know what their downfall typically is? Their own success. It's an all-too-familiar story: entrepreneur starts a company, makes a brilliant call or two, makes a bundle, and then suddenly, miraculously, from then on he can do no wrong.

But that's not how it works. There's an expression in investing: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." Well, guess what. That expression applies to everything and everybody. Entrepreneurs, managers, executives, business owners, everybody.

In fact, egos are so big in management circles that sometimes it's hard to tell where one person's drama ends and another person's drama begins. You could be minding your own business, doing your job, when your boss, an employee, a peer, someone comes to you with a problem.

And somewhere between the time you storm off to deal with the mess, mumbling angrily about your disrupted morning, and the time you finally calm down after drinking that extra glass of wine with dinner, you realize that the disruption was real and you were acting out because, for whatever reason, you didn't want to deal with it.

Maybe that particular example doesn't exactly resonate with you, but I bet I can come up with one or two that does.
You see, management is a messy and dysfunctional business because it deals with people in the real world. And while organisms like you and me may try to organize people into neat little organizations, the real world has other plans. The real world doesn't behave in an organized manner. The real world is chaotic.

Sometimes we try to escape from the chaos for a few hours and get angry when we're interrupted. Other times our escape is more long-range. Since we were successful once, we delude ourselves into believing we've got it all figured out. We become overconfident. I'm no shrink, but I think it's a control thing. We all do it, and we're not even aware of it.

But you need to be aware of it, or it can be your downfall. The sign you need to look out for is when "you make it about you." Leadership means never making it about you. Here are three scenarios to consider:

  • When a customer's in need, she doesn't care about you. She cares about what you can do for her. She wants her problem solved. And frankly, she doesn't care one bit whether you or someone else solves it, as long as someone does. But if you act self-important, you'll end up with one less customer.
  • When your boss needs something done and he calls on you to do it, that's not about you either. That's about getting something done for the company, for the business, for him. And if you're a real pain and whine about it every time, eventually he'll get someone else to do it.
  • When an employee needs your help, that's not about you either. You can make it about you, by giving him a hard time and pushing him around so he knows you're the boss. But then you'll miss an opportunity to teach him a methodology or show him some insight he can utilize for the rest of his life. That's called leadership.
I bet you come across people "making it about them" every day. Right? Well, it's much harder to see it in yourself.
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