Have you ever come face-to-face, toe-to-toe or up close and personal with your ego? I looked mine straight in the eye, and it was one of the best lessons of my life.
I was packing up my office on the top floor of Virginia’s State Office Building (a building that had S.O.B. emblazoned on all the trash cans!) located on the corner of “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol,” as we called it. The spectacular floor to ceiling view from my office captured the beauty of the domed building Thomas Jefferson designed and the remarkable magnolia trees gracing the grounds. As I closed up the box at 4:55p.m., the phone rang and I answered it.
“Hello,” the woman’s voice said, “I’m so and so, and I represent XYZ. We want you to run for our district’s State Senate seat against the incumbent.”
The only intelligible comment I made was, “What? Why me?”
“Because you’re a known name, but you haven’t done anything to sully that and because you’re an advocate for children. We think you can beat Senator so and so, and we’re willing to back your campaign.”
My heart stopped a second. I said something about how flattered I was but that it was my last day on the job, and I would be moving to another state. She said how disappointed she was and asked me to reconsider. That ship had sailed, however, so I said no, thanked her profusely and hung up.
I doubt my backside touched the seat of the car as I drove home. I was flying high on myself. I had all kinds of dreams and fantasies about walking down the aisle of the magnificent Virginia Senate Chamber for my induction, and giving rip-snorting speeches to change the world. I had visions of getting laws passed that no one else had ever even tried and the regular appearance of my name and face on the front page of the paper. I could already see the legions of cameras and microphones I would fight off everywhere I went.
Long before cell phones, I had to wait to share the news with my husband until I got home. I nearly burst through the front door. “You’ll never guess…,” I began and told him about the phone call. I assumed that he would be a little impressed and maybe even excited for me.
He laughed out loud.
I don’t know when I’ve ever felt more exhilarated or more deflated within the space of two hours. My spouse’s laughter doused my swelling ego and inserted some objectivity, and started the deflation process early.
My chances of getting nominated for or elected to that office were nonexistent. The incumbent was a silver-haired, highly-regarded attorney that had served for 15 years with honor. I was “known” all right…in a circle of about 200 people, none of whom had any power! Hello, reality; farewell, ego—at least for this trip!
When reality hit home, I was embarrassed at my grandiosity (even if it was mostly in my thoughts) and my lack of either humility or common sense. Even though I was young, I knew that unmanaged egos are an aspiring leader’s biggest vulnerability. In fact, working with the legislature put me in touch with negative role models on a daily basis.
Leaders with out of control egos (and who aren’t aware theirs is out of control) may “lead” with ego, i.e., “My way or the highway…What I want….I am right.” Ego-driven leaders are about me not We. Without We, however, there can be no exceptional teams and, therefore, there can be no excellence.
The high and low crash experience of my 15 minutes of fame dramatically tempered my future response to flattery of any kind. I learned to say, “Thank you!” to praise or flattery and sit down, always trying not to take myself or anyone else too seriously ever again. I learned that my ego trip was a trap.
I’ve grown to be comfortable in my skin. I know my strengths and my flaws, my foibles, and my temptations. Any desire for either fame or fortune has withered gracefully. I have never been more content.
I’m glad my ego and I had that eyeball-to-eyeball chat. And looking at the lives of the politicians I know, I can thank my ex-husband for moving us out of state and for my ego for finally learning to contain itself.
Have you ever confronted your ego? Did you flinch?