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Leave Your Ego at the Door

by Jim Morgan
May 1, 2014

Leave Your Ego at the Door

by Jim Morgan
May 1, 2014 | Comments (4)

The lesson started with a simple, hand written note I received through intra-company mail one afternoon. Alan Mulally had just left Boeing to join Ford as President and CEO during a difficult and pivotal time in Ford’s history. Alan’s unpretentious note suggesting we meet was the beginning of a seven-year relationship during which I learned many things from Alan, like the importance of providing people with context, of always working on a better plan, and the “magic” of truly working together. But none of these lessons were more important than seeing first hand how he approached his leadership role in the company day in and day out. He approached leadership with an authentic humility and deep respect and affection for others. It was never about him – always about Ford. And this never changed, in the darkest depths of our corporate crisis, or later as the company became ever more successful and Alan grew into a rock star CEO. This approach allowed Alan to connect with people in a powerful way that enabled him to lead Ford through one of the most dramatic turn arounds in business history.     

Alan MAnd after working for Alan awhile it occurred to me that I had seen this approach before. I remembered walking through the doors at East West (recently renamed Kaizen Brazilian Jui Jitsu) and encountering the sign “Leave Your Ego at the Door” emblazoned above the training area. I quickly found that, like Alan, the best fighters were often the most humble. This wasn’t just true in my personal experience at Kaizen, Sam Sheridan in his excellent book A Fighters Heart consistently heard the same message as he interviewed the best fighters in the world; “humility was the most important attribute for a great fighter.” To some extent it is the nature of BJJ that keeps you humble. BJJ is not a “kata-based art”(choreographed sequence of unresisted movements) where participants rarely test each other physically. Rather BJJ is based on real world rolling or sparring with opponents. There is no ambiguity and no rationalization – "you got tapped (forced to submit), deal with it." It crushes illusions and forces the critical self-examination required for improvement. But the most important reason great fighters put their ego aside is because it inhibits their progress. They work harder than anyone else, always look for gaps in their game and constantly push their limits. A big ego makes you afraid to push, to try new things, to open up, to grow. Ego makes you complacent and fat, and makes you afraid to risk. You are stuck.

bjjBut don’t make the mistake of confusing humility with weakness. The best fighters have an inner fierceness and focus that belies their calm appearance; a no excuses drive to do whatever it takes.  Likewise, with his easy smile, and sincere “honor to serve” attitude, the casual observer could be forgiven for missing the stoic resolve, incredible work ethic and laser focused drive that have made Alan one of the most successful leaders in business today.

Many years of experience have taught me that leadership like Brazilian jiu jitsu can be learned, and that your capabilities can be continually improved. But like most difficult and tacit skills, you can only learn it by doing, and your efforts will be helped along considerably by working with outstanding mentors to guide you on your journey. People who have actually done it before. During my career I've been fortunate enough to have truly exceptional mentors for to whom I owe a debt, which I'll never be able to fully repay. The opportunity to work with Alan was something particularly special. So if you really want to be among the very best, you might want to consider leaving your ego at the door. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban May 01, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

"But don’t make the mistake of confusing humility with weakness."

That's a really key point. I see many people in healthcare making this mistake, thinking they need to be decisive, in-charge, top-down leaders... truly strong leaders aren't threatened by the ideas of their employees. Strong leaders aren't afraid to be questioned.

I hope Ford is on a good path. I'm concerned by the past behavior of CEO-to-be Mark Fields. He flew a corporate jet home each weekend to his family in Florida... only changing this behavior after it became a bit of a public embarrassment in the Detroit news media. It was partly embarrassing because Fields was driving downsizing and was laying off tens of thousands of people. Yet, in an era of belt tightening, he was jetting home on the company's expense. It didn't look good.

I wonder if he changed his behavior because it was the right thing to do or because he got caught?

That was years ago, but it makes me worry about his ethics as a leader. Maybe Fields grew and progressed as a leader under Mulally's tutelage. I hope so.



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Jim Morgan May 01, 2014
Thanks for the comment Mark.  Clearly my view is that as leaders we can grow, evolve and improve - in fact we must.  Obviously I can't speak for Mark, but I can tell you that for me, and I suspect many others, working around Alan was definitely a growth experience.  

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Mateus Gonçalves May 09, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
It's real interesting how sports can teach us that we are all equal! Sometimes we think that is not possible (just a dream), but with hard work and never give... Yes you can!

Two more teachings that I learn during my life: 1-How he/she treats pleople who can not bring any benefit; 2-How it treats people who can not fight back.
I do not have privilege to meet Alan, but it's clear that is special guy that have respect with all persons. 


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Jim Morgan May 10, 2014
Thanks for your insightful comments Mateus.  You can indeed tell a great deal about a person that way...

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