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Done-in By the Need to be Special

Done-in By the Need to be Special

Consider this recent story of a leader done-in by his need to be special: Cincinnati fired Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell citing a “culture of hostility” and “an unprofessional obsession with publicity and self-promotion.” Mr. Blackwell, it is charged, “expected his subordinates to risk defying state law in order to protect his own image and, when they did not, engaged in acts of retaliation against them.”

While few leaders will ever behave as extremely as Chief Blackwell, the desire to be special hampers almost everyone’s ability to lead.

If we are honoring the thoughts of our ego and making it about “me”, we will have difficulty listening to others. We will have difficulty giving up control, and thus will find ourselves micromanaging. Our head will be so filled with thoughts about ourselves and how we are doing that there will be no room for new inspired ideas to arise.

Ego driven leaders find themselves firefighting problems that seem to arise one after another and end their days filled with stress and anxiety.

Fortunately there is another way.

In his seminal work, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that the highest performing leaders demonstrated extreme humility and channeled “their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.”

Is ego-driven behavior so unusual? How often do we value thoughts that rob our peace of mind? Do we really value being right over being happy? Is this a universal human condition, to value what is valueless? If so, why?

Donna Goddard writes:

Although we say we want love and peace in our life, most of us cannot tolerate them for very long. Our ego gets much of its identity from being in conflict with situations and people, even people we love. Unless the ego feels something personal is giving it energy, it will have a tendency to start getting angsty; looking to grab onto something which will make it feel like it has substance. It seeks constant affirmation that it is alive and important, and much of that affirmation comes from other people being wrong and it being right.

Earlier this year a friend shared a story of how Delta Airlines makes its frequent flyers feel special. Frequent flyers board first, and as they approach the gate, they get to walk over a “dirty blue sky priority mat.” The rest of the passengers are not so special.  After priority passengers board, a velvet rope closes the lane over the dirty mat and the rest of the passengers board via a parallel lane without the “benefit” of stepping on the mat.

Since my friend first made his observations about the mat, he has achieved frequent flyer status. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek he says, “now that I get to walk over the dirty blue carpet, it does make me feel extra special!”

I fly frequently on Southwest Airlines. Southwest boards by groups beginning with A 1-30.  Southwest could say about their first boarding group “A 1-30, welcome aboard” but instead they say, “Upgraded Business Select passengers A 1-15 followed by A 16-30, welcome aboard.” Quite the mouthful! Clearly there is a corporate directive to stroke business select customers with a public acknowledgement. And yes, like my friend, I do get a bit of secret satisfaction when I board with the first group.

What are Delta and Southwest on to? Is our ego bought off so easily? Look at your thinking throughout the day. Is not most of it about “me” and what “me” needs or doesn’t need?

The ego thrives on separateness and differences. So yes, even an absurd thing like stepping on a mat or being publically acknowledged for being a business select customer will stroke the ego and increase consumer loyalty.

Why does the ego thrive on differences and being special?

Quantum physicists explain that reality consists of an undifferentiated whole, which we can call Wholeness. The separated me, according to Albert Einstein, is an optical delusion of [our] consciousness. This delusion is a “prison,” Einstein wrote. Why? When we are in our prison we are cut-off from the gifts that emanate from our True Self. And those gifts are only available from Wholeness.

We are all experts on our own ego and its predilections. Our ego tells us what makes us happy or unhappy.  We believe if we get more of the “happy” and less of the “unhappy,” we will finally be fulfilled. Being an expert on “me” means that we lose our ability to find the deep abiding happiness that our True Self provides. When we honor our ego’s false beliefs, we feed our ego power.

Tom Carpenter writes, “All of the ego’s power is derived from our mistaken belief that there is an alternative to Love.”

How can there be an alternative to Love? We can pretend that sitting at a table or steeping into a mat will make us happy. There is nothing wrong with make-believe, but the ego’s price is steep and the hangover is terrible.

The hangover comes in the form of the low buzz of angst that most of us live with us. Some try to medicate the buzz. Alcohol, drugs, shopping, watching television, even getting upset or starting an argument can distract us from the buzz. When later we look for causes of our existential angst, we blame it on external circumstances. We are always wrong. When mistakenly we believe there is an alternative to Love, the cause of our existential angst is our desire to be special and different.

What is the cure for the hangover of specialness? We look at the terrible price we pay for our specialness and we decide the price is no longer worth it. We no longer ask the world to provide something it can’t, namely, to be a substitute for Wholeness. Having emptied a space, Love rushes in to fill the void.

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