I recently had lunch with my friend Jack, an accomplished and active Executive who previously was my boss. Jack shares his professional wisdom with me during our lunches, but my favorite part is always hearing about his adventure travels. At an age where most of his peers have since retired, Jack and wife finished their latest adventure that they had been training for months to accomplish, climbing Peak Lenin. Peak Lenin is on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and at 23,406 feet in height, it is taller than the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
As I threw a million questions at Jack to learn how he extensively trained for this climb and all the details of his three-week experience, he mentioned that three people had perished in their attempts to climb this strenuous mountain during the same time they were there. Now if you’ve seen the movies Everest or Into Thin Air, it will not shock you that many climbers die trying to accomplish their goal of reaching the top of these significant mountains. While casualties occur due to a variety of circumstances, many suffer from Cerebral Edema, a swelling of the brain caused by the extreme altitude.
I asked Jack, “The people who die from Cerebral Edema, does it take them by surprise or are there warning signs?” Jack told me there are many, many warning signs. The first sign is a severe headache. And at the first sign, the climber should immediately head back down the mountain. Game over. However, as you may know, many climbers keep on going up the mountain. This fascinates me. Why do seemingly intelligent and extensively trained people ignore all the signs that their pursuit of this goal is going to kill them and keep carrying on up towards the peak? Is this feeling of personal achievement worth the sacrifice of life? I knew the answer and Jack validated it when I asked his opinion. His answer, plain and simple, “Ego.”
I’ve spent over a decade learning about ego, how it impacts us professionally and personally especially in the context of leadership. I’ve developed and coached hundreds of leaders on how to manage ego so that it doesn’t derail career and leadership success. Yet even with the threat of death, we see that ego can still take control and drive poor decisions that ultimately lead to failure. As I explored this idea with Jack, someone who I deeply admire for his leadership abilities, he shared something so simple, yet so profound. He explained, “Madeline, you know what my goal for Peak Lenin was? My goal was to reach the bottom.”
Taking this into the context of business and leadership, do companies set goals to reach the top of the mountain, or to reach the bottom? As Executives in a thriving company, are your company, team and personal goals ego-less? If your ego is inadvertently built into your goals, it’s very likely your ego could take over and drive you in the direction of failure. You’d be surprised to see how many company goals are tied to the personal egos of the company’s Executive team versus a higher purpose.
Many years ago, I was hired to run the Learning and Development department for a growing global-company. As I was preparing a presentation to deliver to the Executive Team that outlined my short and long-term leadership development strategy for the company, I was fortunate to have a phone call with an Executive Coach. On my coaching call, I shared my excitement and natural anxiety over this upcoming presentation. She asked me what my personal goal was for this presentation. Well, that was simple! It was the first time they would truly see my work and I just had to blow them away. She then asked me, “If your goal is to amaze them with your brilliance and expertise, what might happen if they didn’t agree with an aspect of your strategy or suggested a modification to your approach?” As I honestly reflected on that question, I confessed it would be highly likely I would defend my position and try to convince them that my strategy is right. Because if there are changes to my strategy, then of course I didn’t blow them away with my brilliance. It meant I got something wrong. At that moment, I realized the point my coach was leading me to.
With my ego being so woven into my goal, it would have led me to behaviors that would get me exactly what I didn’t want, a potentially negative impression of me as a new leader to the company. I sat back and focused on taking my ego out of my goal and tapping into what truly matters to me. My revised goal was to leave the Executive meeting with a very solid short- and long-term strategy that would have a positive impact on the company’s success. BOOM…there it is. Now, if the Executives had suggestions or ways to modify it, it would be aligned with my goal to be open to those suggestions, potentially leading to an even better strategy. And as a natural outcome, they would leave with the impression that I was a fantastic leader in the company who got us there. Ego-less goal.
What are the signs that your personal or company goals are ego-filled?
1) You feel a strong sense of competitiveness with your goal.
A little healthy competition is great. But is your goal strictly about beating your pesky competition in the stock market? Or is it to provide such an innovative product (hello, Apple) that it changes the world, for the better? If your company goals are so focused on being better than others, along will come a market disruptor (Apple, Uber, etc.) and you won’t even see it coming. Take competition out of your goal. Focus your goals on what you are uniquely trying to do for yourself, customers, company, stakeholders, and the world.
2) You hope others will admire you, be envious, or think you are amazing if you achieve your goal.
Congratulations, you have a “me” goal. Any goal aimed at producing the adrenaline high of approval or admiration from others has ego wrapped up so tightly you are sure to not make it down that mountain. What is the higher-level purpose of this goal that will positively impact others including yourself? Make the goal about “we”, not “me”. Is your goal to nail that executive presentation (as I hoped to do) so they think you are beyond brilliant? Or is it to walk out of that meeting with an incredibly solid plan that came about not just from your hard work and expertise but also from collaborating with great minds to come up with the best approach? “We” focused goals capture what you are trying to do, not what you are.
3) Your personal goal becomes more about the destination than the journey.
Sometimes we set personal goals that are truly just for pleasure. Maybe it’s climbing Everest. Maybe it’s doing a hike in beautiful Zion. Just recently a well-followed couple on Instagram tragically fell off the side of a cliff in Yosemite trying to get that perfect shot to achieve more Instagram followers and of course give them some serious travel-envy. At what point did their pursuit of their travel dreams become less about enjoying their travels and more about achieving Instagram fame? I’m confident if this beautiful couple were not well followed Instagrammers trying to get that perfect selfie, they’d be alive today to enjoy more of their travel adventures and inspire others. Set your personal goals around the enjoyment of the activity and let the outcomes naturally follow.
As the new year hits, we are busy making goals for the following year. Take a look at both your personal, professional, and company goals. Are they ego-filled or ego-less? Could they cause you and/or the company to make poor decisions in the pursuit of trying to achieve them? What is it you really want to do versus achieve? Of course, with setting company and personal goals we do have to define outcomes, metrics, and success measures. But ask yourself, what is the purpose? Connect your goals to a purpose that isn’t about your own personal ego high.
My friend, Jack lives this concept day in and day out and as a very accomplished Executive has led countless teams to success. Jack is one of the few professionals I know who doesn’t spend energy trying to chase a fancy job title. He has moved into new roles and made career shifts because of how he believes that new role will give him opportunities to serve others. And on the side of his busy day job, he’s literally climbing mountains. You know what? I’ve never seen a happier and more satisfied person in my life, with a huge stack of accomplishments that naturally occurred as a result of his ego-less goals.
By the way, he crushed his goal…he made it back down that mountain. But you might be wondering, did he make it to the top of Peak Lenin? He made it to 21,000 feet without summiting, but to Jack that wasn’t even part of his story. It was all about getting to the bottom!