Just after being named a first-time CEO, I was in a conversation with one board member who observed that as leaders we all have egos and there are times when a leader must manage personal ego in favor of the greatest good. There is a struggle between taking action because it is best for the cause and taking action because it makes the leader look like a hero. Often, one of the biggest challenges leaders face is knowing how to tell the two apart.
Last week, Connecticut’s credit unions scored a big victory in the state legislature. After a long, hard-fought legislative session, with only about 10 minutes to go before sine die, a budget implementer bill that included a sales and use tax exemption for state-chartered credit unions was passed. Throughout the session, there were many ups and downs, and it was not always clear which direction our issue would go. I knew the most critical factor for success would be long-established relationships and deep knowledge of the state legislative process. As a new resident of Connecticut, these were not strengths I brought to the table, but the best person in the state to get this done was on my team.
I am the new CEO: A former lobbyist who had spent time in DC, who really wanted this for our credit unions, for my team, and-let’s be honest- for myself. I testified, provided resources, and worked to communicate with our members, but found myself occasionally feeling I should be doing something more: More visible, more intense, more heroic. It became clear how easily ego could get in the way of making the best decision.
When it was evident that our sales tax exemption would pass, I found myself in a conversation about the role I played in helping achieve the successful outcome, and acknowledged I was not the most critical factor to achieving success. But the conversation brought me to another important piece of wisdom I recently received: Don’t Screw Up.
At the time I read this bit of sage advice, it was easy to laugh off. It struck me as equivalent to the coach telling a team to win the game by outscoring the opponent; so simple, it could be easily filed away in the category of duh. When coupled with the reality of leaders and egos though, it becomes more profound. By staying behind the scenes to offer support, connect resources, and remove obstacles that allowed my team member to do her job, I did exactly what I needed to positively impact the success of our sales tax exemption.
There were many ways I could have created negative impact. I could have doubted the ability of the team, inserted myself into a process where I was not the foremost expert, or demanded the spotlight. At the end of the day, I could have claimed that I was the reason we secured the victory—if we even still had the result we sought– but certainly there would have been damage.
Throughout the process- because the board member’s message had resonated with me- I found myself checking whether I was making ego-based or situation-based leadership decisions and, as humorous as the “Don’t Screw Up” advice may have been intended, it kept me in check. I am looking forward to a long career, filled with many new lessons. For now, I’m thankful to start8 with, “Keep your ego in check and don’t screw up.”