Reflections on #Leadership: Leaving Your Ego at the Door

While preparing for a security force assistance mission in Baghdad in 2009, our then-Brigade Commander, Roger Cloutier, said that to be successful in our mission working with Iraqi Army and Police, we would have to “leave our egos at the door.” His comment has continued to bounce around in my mind, often driving deeper reflection on leadership and situations I experienced in many different environments.  

What then-Colonel Cloutier (now a Major General) meant was that this mission was not about us. It wasn’t about making ourselves look better or accomplishing things that would reflect on our record. Rather, it was about putting our teammates ahead of us. It was about being the minor partner in the relationship, the supporter and not the supported.  Immediately on arriving in theater, we practiced what the colonel preached. This was their country, and these were their boundaries and checkpoints. We were their guests and there to assist, not to run the show.  We gave them the respect a ground-owning unit deserved, regardless of what flag they wore on their uniform. It was a simple, yet groundbreaking analogy, one I believe applies to general leadership skills as much as for future partnership missions.    

...war is a multidisciplinary problem, and a leader needs to recognize they do not have all the right answers or all the knowledge.

First, war is a multidisciplinary problem, and a leader needs to recognize they do not have all the right answers or all the knowledge. A leader may have vast experience. However, they have to leave ego behind and exercise humility when it comes to addressing complex problems. Admitting what we do not know is the first step toward gaining greater knowledge. With today’s complex problems, there are many who have a better understanding of the history, the depth, and the intricacies of issues that will challenge our future leaders. And those experts may not be in uniform. For military personnel, it is sometimes hard to admit we need help external to our branch, our service, or our profession. But by leaving ego at the door, we become more comfortable with the notion that there is nothing wrong with a leader gathering his or her team, identifying their strengths and weakness, and then reaching out to those with a better appreciation of a situation regardless of their profession or walk of life.

Second, by leaving ego at the door, future leaders open themselves to selfless service. I believe the best leaders put the well-being of their teams above their own professional advance—always. Leaders who only concern themselves with meeting timelines to ensure they are positioned for the next job/rank are inherently less effective, especially in the long term.

Third, those who leave their egos behind set up a climate of cooperation, a climate that can then grow into a culture. The leader sets the climate while present...but when it turns into a culture, the belief in cooperation is infused throughout the organization, and cooperation happens even when the leader is not there. Many of us have worked with (or against) a team led by someone who believes only in themselves and is willing to forego advice or assistance from others out of fear that it may take away from their glory once the job is complete. It is a miserable existence trying to work with or for such a leader. Those leaders who leave their egos at the door, though, and come into a situation with an open mind, focused on mission success, often foster that culture of cooperation. A leader will infuse this in his or her team, and it will disseminate up, down, and across all levels. From experience, we often see the best chances of success as those on the team reach out to others, bring partners on board, and look to the overall betterment of the mission, not to personal advancement.

Leaders need to be engaged with their team, not all the time, but they need to be there for the heavy lifting.

Fourth, those leaders who leave their egos at the door are more engaged with their team. Leaders need to be engaged with their team, not all the time, but they need to be there for the heavy lifting. Whether it’s in the motor pool during command maintenance, during the crunch time of preparing slides for that briefing to the Chief of Staff, or during that refitting of the platoon’s equipment so it’s ready to go back out on patrol before everyone gets some down time on the patrol base, we need our leaders to be present when it counts. Those worried about only themselves will show up for the “performance” whatever it may be:  final briefing, command inspection, final run of the live fire. However, the valued leaders who left their egos at the door will have been there long before and long afterward...and their teams will notice.   

While there are plenty of complicated, linear problems to be tackled, more often than not our most junior leaders are dealing with complex, interconnected issues with no simple, lock-step solution. The simple infantry platoon leader problem of “take that hill” may still exist, but chances are it now has many more twists, including multiple ethnicities claiming sovereignty to that hill; international and non-governmental organizations ready to help; environmentalists filing briefs on potential ecological disasters; an unmanned aerial vehicle hovering over that hill sending a live stream to YouTube for millions to watch in real time—and so the complex story goes. This doesn’t mean we need do not need to know how to solve complicated problems. Just the opposite; having an understanding of how to solve complicated problems sets the stage for how to approach complex problems. A leader who leaves their ego behind before entering into a complex problem knows there is no single, simple solution. Rather, they know what they know and, more importantly, what they do not know, and they recognize it will take a committed, team effort to work towards viable solutions.    

Leaving ego behind has different meanings to different people. To me this term has come to encompass what I believe is a key trait for our future leaders, regardless of field. For the military profession, leadership is the critical component of mission success: bringing home as many of our troopers as possible from combat. It takes a leader who is humble, intelligent, caring, and willing to admit what they do not know to lead our nation’s most precious treasure, our daughters and sons, into and out of the crucible of combat. Egos bent on personal advancement, personal glory, and individual betterment are not what we need as we delve deeper into the growing complexities of the 21st century. Take some time to do a self-assessment and decide what lies in your ego. Can you leave it behind as a leader? It is something we all need to train for, and most importantly, something our troopers and nation deserve.  

Mike Sullivan is a U.S. Army officer and PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  His research focuses on advisory missions and security sector reform. He has served with the 82d Airborne, 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Infantry Division, and most recently as the United States Army Garrison Baumholder Commander. The views expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: C-17 interior, Bagram Airfield. June 2015 | Jason Koxvold, Bridge Featured Contributor