Taking the Ego out of Leadership

I was in another part of the country at a driving range.  There was a man about my age hitting balls.  I asked a question about the distances to the targets on the range, and he began to ask me questions.  It was clear that he wanted to talk.  It turned out that he was a well-known golf instructor.  He had endless, delightful stories to tell.  I noticed that his stories were not so much about golf as there were about teaching golf.  I could see that for him teaching was an activity of delight.

I invited him to give me a lesson and he happily agreed.  After watching me take only three swings, he stopped me and made a stunning diagnosis.  I immediately knew that he was masterful.  I have had many lessons over the years.  His was different.  Instead of teaching me techniques, he told me he was going to teach me how to take my ego out of my golf swing.  He began to talk like Bagger Vance, the caddy-coach in the movie by the same name.  Pretty soon he had me taking swings that were stress free and the results were impressive.

As we were finishing he again began to talk about teaching.  He said, “I do not teach golf, I teach people.”

He was touching one of my most strongly held beliefs.  It is that content is an excuse for a teacher to be in trusting, generative relationship with a student so the student’s life can be transformed.  The same holds for leadership.  The organizational task is an excuse for a leader to be in a trusting, generative relationship with the workforce so the people and the organization can be transformed and perform at a new level.  Positive teaching and positive leadership are about relationships, excellence and the realization of untapped potential.

My friend went on.   “Another teacher will tell me that they just came from a bad lesson.  The student did not learn. I tell them that their report is not a story of failure in the student.  It is a confession of failure in the teacher.  If the student is not better when you are done, it means you are a not a teacher.  In the presence of a real teacher, students want to learn and they do.”

Again I caught fire.  If people are not fully engaged and exceeding expectations, the leader is not leading.  People often try to neutralize the positive lens by arguing, “Oh this is touchy-feely, soft stuff.”  This sentence is fear based.  It is a manifestation of the fear of intimacy.   The fear excuses conventional administrators from knowing themselves and knowing their people.  In conventional administrative thinking average behavior is not only acceptable, it is the expectation.  In the positive lens the accountability is astronomical.  If the people are not performing with excellence, the administrator is not leading.  The key is to take ego out of leadership.

I shared this notion and my friend resonated.  His eyes lit up, “That is exactly right!”  He spoke with enthusiasm as he explored the implications.  Clearly this notion had previously occurred to him.  He said, “Teaching is not about putting knowledge in people, it is about helping them acquire wisdom.”

That triggered this idea in me.   Positive leadership is about helping people learn the ability to acquire collective wisdom.  When a person has had a positive leader, they know it is possible to collaborate and excel.  They will then work to create such capacity.  In the process they become wise and so do their people.  Ego disappears.

Reflection

If it is possible to take the ego out of a golf swing, is it possible to take ego out of leadership, what would happen?

Am I currently aspiring to convention or to excellence?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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