Leaders Don’t Need Self-Esteem

One of the enormous joys of teaching at a university is that students appear with passion to learn, grow, and become. I can sense it in my classroom of 65 and in the mega-class that holds 700.  But I especially feel it during office hours or my weekly lunches with students. They are wisdom seekers, and by asking great questions they help me uncover things I didn’t even know I knew. Last week was a great example.

Three undergraduate students, all with an interest in serving in government, were asking about my wife’s experience as governor, and mine along side her. I told them how Governor Mario Cuomo had taught me a lesson years before my wife was elected but which influenced the two of us – most importantly her – for years to come.  I was interviewing Cuomo and digging into one of the crevices of the human character that always intrigued me. I was probing him about how he could be confident that his principles and not his ego were in control. He gave me a series of things that guided him, then he shared this story:

“One day a couple of kids asked me for my autograph, and I thought for a minute: If they knew some of the things I’ve done, the things I would never want my mother to know, they would never be asking for my autograph. Then I realized: They’re not asking for your autograph, big nose. They’re asking for the signature of the Governor of New York. And as long as you’re wearing that suit, it’s your duty to provide it.”

I explained to the students that Jennifer and I would remind each other, “It’s the suit.” Those three words meant that when people were kissing your backside, you knew it wasn’t you; it was the suit, and you didn’t need to feel all high and mighty.* I also shared how I had to learn that my role was one of emotional support; that was the primary suit I had to wear. Jennifer wore the important public role and robe. One of the students asked, “But wasn’t that hard for your self esteem?”  I think he meant: to not allow the praise to sink in. His question was such a gift!

“Not at all,” I told him. When you’re in a role like that – a supervisor, parent, manager, or in my case first gentleman – your greatest power comes not from your sense of individual self but from your connection to the purpose – the mission you’re on, the vision you’re pursuing, and the higher values that you are striving to adhere to.  It’s a crazy paradox, really.  Scripture would say, “he who wishes to find himself must lose himself.” And in Zen, the escape from the attachment to ego allows one to be free to be in the moment. Ego, with its striving for significance, will never yield what you seek.

Watching the movie Harriet (Tubman) over the weekend, you could see how the most important conductor on the Underground Railroad found her power in purpose (and in her case, as depicted, an extraordinary sense of God’s voice in her life).  She risked her life over and over again in service to a higher calling. She was undeniable! Not because she believed in Harriet’s greatness but in the greatness of the mission.

You may hear this as boasting, but I don’t mean it that way.  Even on the far side of 60 years old, my Ego clammers tens of times a day. I have what you could describe as the biggest – or perhaps more accurately – weakest ego of almost anyone I know.  I am so not an evolved soul. But sometimes . . . there are these undeniably wonderful moments when I’m clear: it’s all about the purpose and about my partners, above all, my Partner Jennifer.

The rest is just a cheap suit.

Ego and the Suit are enormous distractions from

Leading with your best self!

*By the way, the suit also protected us when someone was so angry at a plant closing or a compromise on an issue that they let the F-bombs fly and did not want to hear any reason, explanation or compromise. Roles/suits make you a target, and though you strive always to keep your mind and heart open, there are times when the suit, too, comes in handy.

  • Oh, Dan, thank you! We all need to pay attention to this.
    (If only the man in the Oval Office could read this and take it to heart…)

  • Great post, Dan. Two big takeaways for me concerning effective leadership: 1) the critical importance of humility — a good leader understands that whatever s/he is trying to achieve/change/accomplish is not about her/him, but rather about how that achievement/change/accomplishment will make the world better for others; 2) the critical importance of purpose — in other words, the “why” one is pursuing what s/he is pursuing. Along those lines, see this great talk by Simon Sinek: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en#t-1062592.

    • David,
      Yes, I agree with your 2 takeaways. Aren’t they precisely what Jim Collins described as “level 5 leaders,” who brought the great mix of “personal humility and fierce resolve?” He and is researchers found these leaders – who helped their organization “make the leap from good to great,” were humble with respect to themselves but unstoppable when it came to achieving purpose, vision, mission, and goals.

  • Well said my friend. People ask me all the time, “Don’t you ever say, no?” I say, “Why would I? Service is an expression of my faith.” I have realized that “My Suit” is a way for me to help empower the voice of the voiceless and to help those in need. I will hold on to this writing Dan. As always, Thank You. Sheri.

    • Sheri,
      Your use of the suit reminds me of some old myth – which I cannot pinpoint – where a nobleman (noble woman in our day) lays down an expensive cloak for someone to cross a muddy and slippery path. Or, of the biblical injunction, that if someone sues you for your shirt, give him your cloak, also. (Matthew 5:40).
      Too often, it’s easy to think of the suit as something that you have gained, for example, your news anchor that puts you front and center, my teaching position, or an elected official’s seal. What a difference when, instead, you think of it as a gift to share, or a lever you’ve been given to pry open doors to those “outside.”
      I wonder how many lives you have impacted in Lansing. How awesome that you remember that those bright outfits that make you shine and make you seem so perfectly put together – standing above the rest – are instead a work woman’s tools you use to make a difference for others!!!
      That is leading with your best suit!

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