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What stops a successful person from becoming a great leader?

As a culture, we confuse leadership and success – whether in business, politics, associations, or universities. It’s true; business leaders are visibly at the pinnacle of their organization, having a level of achievement that is commensurate with financial and professional success. However, there are also more narrowly defined successes associated with leadership, such as diligently executing a takeover of a competitor, implementing a game-changing strategy, recasting a company culture, or innovating in a mature market.

These successes share something in common, they are terminal. Terminal success is an output, a result of effort that has a measurable and distinct endpoint. Remarkably, many leaders experience a letdown or even disappointment after achieving terminal success; their ego is satisfied momentarily, but soon turns to hungry pursuit of another validating success. Rather than measuring success in terminal outcomes, consider that a sustainable definition of success is one that honors the journey (process) as much as the destination (outcome). Earl Nightingale, famed teacher and author, provides a practical definition of sustainable success as, “the ongoing realization of worthwhile goals.” Ongoing realization isn’t terminal; it is a dynamic process. Worthwhile goals transcend individual ego with a wider lens focused on purpose and the upleveling of an entire organization.

The Leadership Breakdown

Leaders will often endure leadership breakdowns, which include missing key objectives, missing revenue targets, losing a critical deal, low morale or disengaged team members, conflict and mistrust, or a regrettable termination such as losing a key team member that diminish the level of success achieved. Ego-centered leaders, those who lack humility, often manufacture reasons and excuses to explain the breakdowns – environment, funding, timing, regulations, Mercury in Retrograde. But mature and conscious leaders use breakdowns as a call to awareness. As Jim Collins shared in Good to Great, great leaders look out the window to assign praise and look in the mirror to assign blame.

A mature leader, a Conscious Leader, who keeps his ego in check, realizes that reclaiming success after setback or failure requires a personal change in their attitude and behavior. I call this cycle Breakdown, Breakup, and Breakthrough. Breakdown is realizing without denial or distortion that there is a problem. Breakup is a conscious effort to gain personal objectivity (often with outside counsel), and to detach from ego-centric thinking, habits and processes. Breakup is the key moment when the leader realizes that he or she is a contributor to the problem and contemplates change. Breakthrough is the aha clarity that results from objectivity, expanded perspective, and actionable changes.

One CEO’s breakdown manifested as lackluster enthusiasm among her senior staff. She was committed to her vision, but they were not engaged. Even though she explained the logic of the vision, berated her team for lack of leadership, and hired a consultant to refine their plan, the team was still neutral. After a series of facilitated conversations she came to realize that while she was dictating strategies and vision, she was not listening or taking input from the collective genius of her senior team. She had to break up with her pattern of single-handed control and actively leverage the skill and experience of her senior team.

With practice and coaching she blended curiosity and facilitation skills into her directive and visionary skills. She went further by recognizing her ego needs for control and recognition and expanding her sense of identity to include her team. The breakthrough was a safe environment in which her senior team contributed and participated fully. Their input in refining her vision not only raised their level of buy-in and enthusiasm, but refined and improved the vision and its resulting strategy.

More on The Ego-Centered Leader

The number-one obstacle for leaders is ego myopia – a lack of ego awareness and ego management. There is a social advantage to ego myopia – hubris. Hubris is often mistaken for leadership and success potential. But the disadvantage of ego myopia is an inability to model humility. Without humility, a leader cannot set aside ego-centered needs in order to serve the greater good. Ego-centric leaders do not build and sustain engage followers; they generate transactional relationships that feed on quid-pro-quo, gain, and fear, rather than on commitment, interpersonal engagement, and service. Ego myopia begets leadership breakdowns.

The ego is our identity and sense-making narrative – it’s neither negative nor useless – and we depend on it to survive and function. Our ego identity is formed from biological, conceptual, and social components. Biologically, our identity is informed by our shape, size, skin color, distinguishing features, health, and energy. Conceptually, our identity is informed by our principles, ideas, beliefs, and education. And socially, our identity is informed by our culture, relationships, family experience, and social context. Regardless of our unique ego identity, we all share three fundamental needs: the need to be right, the need to be liked, and the need to have might – we are compelled by needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

An ego-centered leader, driven by the needs to be right, liked, and have might, focuses on their needs, and ignores or minimizes the same needs of others. The ego-centered leader does not falter as a leader due to lack of intelligence, strategy, or resources. Ego-centered leaders falter because their ego myopia prevents meaningful engagement, collaboration and coordination with employees, colleagues, partners, and customers. This short-sighted behavior of fulfilling their needs to the exclusion of others generates breakdown as they hinder their ability to continuously realize worthwhile goals and curtails meaningful success.

Success is further mitigated by an ego-centered tendency to avoid or minimize deep, meaningful conversations about topics that matter. Success is served by full engagement, which is predicated on an environment in which team members feel safe to communicate openly and honestly with the leader. The “my way or the highway” ego-centered attitude pushes people away along with their ideas, innovation, and necessary warnings. Behaviors that alienate team members also alienate the very skills and ideas that contribute to organizational success. This alienation weakens organizational collaboration – breaks down the flow of ideas resources – and diminishes leadership success and effectiveness. Successful leaders, those who direct a continuous realization of worthwhile goals, know that their success is a feature of engagement and collaboration. And, team members in the 21st century no longer tolerate detached leaders, they crave leaders that transcend their ego, orient toward collective purpose, and empathize with the team – they crave Conscious Leaders.

Eric Kaufmann
Eric Kaufmann

More on The Conscious Leader

A conscious leader is more likely to be a successful leader. A conscious leader is able to keep his ego in check, be more attuned to the strengths and needs of others and can align people’s abilities and desires with the organization’s needs. None of us can eliminate the ego, and all of us will want to be right, liked and have might. However, the conscious leader learns to balance the need to be right with wisdom, the need to be liked with love, and the need to have might with courage. Wisdom is seeing below the surface and beyond the obvious, like understanding their employee needs and helping them achieve their goals and become leaders. Love is wanting to do well for others and encompasses caring about employees and showing appreciation. Courage means walking toward what you’d rather run away from and looks like substituting avoidance and procrastination with purposeful action.

We are living in times that are more than complex and volatile; we’re in a period of chaotic undulations. This is the time to make decisions that are wise, courageous, and caring. Cause and effect are not always obvious, and logic isn’t enough to solve problems. Conscious leaders engage in the chaos and mess and don’t cower or deflect; they bring an optimism that gives hope, and an ability to pivot strategy as necessary.

Successful leaders apply their wisdom and are flexible and agile. Successful leaders apply their courage to face difficulty and move toward glimmers of opportunity. And successful leaders apply love to honor and energize human connections to engage and align their people to focus on the intended goal and gain meaningful results.


Written by Eric Kaufmann. Have you read? Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP), St. Lucia CIP: Saint Lucia Citizenship By Investment Program, Vanuatu CIP: Vanuatu Citizenship By Investment Program, Montenegro Citizenship By Investment Program (CIP)


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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Insider - What stops a successful person from becoming a great leader?
Eric Kaufmann
Eric Kaufmann, President and Founder, Sagatica, an executive development consultancy. He works with leaders to help them to think more creatively, decide more effectively, and relate more wholeheartedly. He has 20 years experience in coaching CEOs to enable them to make better decisions and drive better results by upleveling the way they think, relate, and decide. Eric Kaufmann is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.