Years ago, I attended a corporate luncheon with a few coworkers for some team building and skill strengthening. The seminar speaker was a renowned author who had published a few books about professional leadership. The topic he spoke on that day mirrored the subject of his most recent book in which he proposed we need to have a healthy ego to lead productively.
His big idea was how ego is a spectrum. On one end, you have over-inflated sense of self; it is an assuredness that comes across as cocky or egotistical. On the other end was extreme humility that borders on fake. He described the lower end of the spectrum as something born from either a desire to perform so that you’re seen as humble or from such sever insecurity that you believe you’re worth nothing. The speaker argued both ends were unhealthy and only weak leadership start from those polar forces of ego. Instead, he urged us toward a middle ground. Somewhere between overblown confidence and faux-humility is where a healthy ego resides.
This was a hard concept for me to grasp. I was raised to be a good Christian boy with years and years’ worth of Sunday school lessons are permanently fixed in my memories. Lessons like the beatitudes that taught us how the meek will inherit the earth, or the Proverb that says God mocks the proud but shows grace to those who are humble, or Paul’s letter that instructs us to do nothing conceited but act in humility and consider everyone as more significant than ourselves. There’s another proverb which has been seared into my psyche: Pride comes before the fall.
The church of my youth reminded me over and over. Don’t be vain. Don’t be conceited. Pride will destroy you. Be humble. At the same time, they were also inadvertently teaching me other lessons, stuff that’s not quite biblical. These were more destructive lessons that were a result of trying to teach us kids how to be humble in a self-centered world. These were lessons from the theology of total depravity: you’re worthless, you’re incapable, you are completely corrupt, and there is nothing good about you.
That’s heavy stuff to dump on an impressionable mind. As a Keanu Reeves character might say …
Now that I’ve grown up, I recognize some broken thought patterns in need of repair. This idea about having a healthy ego is one of them. It’s obvious we don’t need to go overboard with confidence in our own abilities. No one likes an egotistical jerk. There’s a reason that personality is often portrayed as the villain in movies. But what about being humble? If the bible instructs us to remain humble at all times, can we still have a healthy ego and demonstrate humility at the same time? If we examine what it means to be humble, we can see a clear difference between artificial and genuine humility.
With the rise of social media, we have witnessed the creation of a new form of boasting called ‘the humble-brag.’ The process of a humble-brag is to point out a huge accomplishment while simultaneously describing it as if it is no big deal or something anyone else could do. It’s the Christianese way of fishing for compliments while looking like we’re giving credit to God. We say words like “It’s a total God thing” while hoping people praise us for how awesome we are. Outside of social media, we do the same thing when complimented. We shrug it off. Instead of thanking people for their kind words, we tell them they’re wrong “Oh, I’m not that good.” We think we’re being humble, but we are not. What we’re really saying is that the talents God gave us are not a big deal. False humility is pride in disguise.
So let’s make it a big deal. There is a reason humility and modesty is synonyms. To be humble, you must be moderate in estimating your own abilities and accomplishments and the reason you exist. Let’s be modest. Let’s find that happy medium between annoying arrogance and the humble that isn’t humble. Let’s be humble for real by embracing a healthy ego.
The speaker at the lunchtime seminar said the way we develop this healthy ego is to fully know who we are. We need to understand and be wholly confident in what we can do and admit those things we cannot do. A healthy ego doesn’t brag in its strengths and it doesn’t overcompensate for its weaknesses. A healthy ego knows exactly who and what it is. A healthy ego is brutally honest and shines a light on both pleasant aspects of our nature and those areas that need some improvement.
Let’s be honest. Rather, I’ll be honest. Here is my healthy ego.
I’m short, a little on the chunky side, and I’m not particularly attractive. My teeth are messed up, my hairline is receding and turning grey, and (on most mornings) I wake up with aches in my neck or back.
I am not athletic. I am not mechanically inclined. I am not a handyman, although can fix most things if I can find a how-to tutorial on YouTube.
I am a divorced single father whose time is split between hanging out with my kids, earning an income, and volunteering at my church.
I have an insatiable wanderlust but do not have the budget to satisfy my longing to travel. I love to sing but I’m tone-deaf. And I enjoy playing the guitar but performing music is not my strong suit.
I am not a great conversationalist but I am a phenomenal story teller. Because I’m a perpetual student in constant pursuit of study, I am knowledgeable in a wide range of topics from history to theology to philosophy to theoretical sciences to politics to arts and entertainment. I have learned to use my learning and ability to spin a good story to prop up my lack of conversational skills. It’s difficult to lose me in conversation regardless of what you want to talk about.
If my kids are to be believed, I’m the best cook. If my son’s youth pastor is to be believed, I am a great dad. If my friends are to be believed, I am a damn good writer.
I am fully aware of who I am and who I am not. I know I’m not going to earn a modelling contract or win any popularity contests. My advice is useless if your car breaks down or your hot water tank malfunctions and floods your house. So, I play to my strengths. I study because I want to learn more. I cook because I like to eat. I love my kids because no one else on earth can take my place. And I write because it is what keeps me grounded.
This is my healthy ego. I won’t brag and I won’t fake being humble. But I will be honest about what I’m capable of doing.