Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

It was my first national meeting.

I was young and about as sophisticated as a bale of hay.

The company I worked for had convened a big gathering in Kansas City and I joined hundreds from across the country in a large ballroom for the beginning of 3 days of festivities that would include a kick-off address by our senior leadership.

Most of the “newbies” knew those executives by name only – or from a company mailing – or maybe a brochure that passed our way when we first interviewed.

The dinner the first evening was formal – suit and tie – and was to be followed by some 2 and half  hours of presentation from a stage that had been set up in front.

We were all excited – and I found myself at a round table half way back with 8 strangers who were mostly just like me – very, very new.

The dinner conversation was lively. We talked about our on-boarding, our frustrations with the employee training, and of course,  speculation about the long parade of speakers that would soon be getting underway. There was a lot of laughing.

Around the time our entree arrived someone suggested we all introduce ourselves.  One of my dinner mates was named Fred and he said he worked in the home office. No one thought much of it – especially since most of the group was in sales. Home office didn’t quite have the cache.

Before long our attention was directed to the stage – and a short, upbeat video that trumpeted our company and its future was followed by the introduction of the president.

As the music blared – Fred walked out.

I’m sure the look of surprise on my face was matched by the  7 other people who sat there at our table.

What the heck?

Fred was indeed a home office employee – but he never thought it important enough to announce he was our president. He simply laughed and enjoyed the camaraderie like the rest of us.

I never forgot that little incident – nor the humility of that very high ranking executive.

A number of years later I moved into management – and a mentor pulled me aside and gave me advice that reminded me of Fred.

“You’re about to get promoted,” my friend said, “And that means you’ll immediately be 25% smarter, 25% more interesting, and yes, 25% more humorous.”

“What…are…you…talking…about?” was my response.

“Oh, you won’t be…but unless you’re careful you’ll believe you are. With power – even just a little power – comes the potential for arrogance. That’s the first step out the door for common sense.”

That might have been one of the single greatest pieces of advice I ever received.

A great many “would be” leaders either never got that valuable coaching – or cared enough to acknowledge it.

They have paid or will pay dearly – so will a lot of people impacted by the collateral damage.

All these years later it’s easy to identify the number one reason leaders fail.


It is a crippling ailment. Power and influence can be likened to salt water – the more you drink from its cup, the greater your thirst.

There are quite a few salt water addicts out there.

Ego and its twin sisters – arrogance and greed – remain 3 of the Leaders’ Deadly Sins. They manifest themselves in the narcissism and condescension that  sometimes seem to permeate our world – and much of industry.

I invest a lot of time these days in Executive Coaching – trying to pay forward at least some of the practical advice that was passed along to me.  Sometimes I find myself talking about leadership qualities that can distinguish a career – sometimes the ones that can extinguish one.

When we talk about the difficult subject of ego I often begin with a story that comes from, of  all places, Hollywood – and an interview that quotes one of my favorite actors, Bill Murray.

Murray, when talking about a contemporary who became infamous for his out of whack ego and a career that spiraled downward, said this,”When you become famous, you’ve got like a year or two where you act like a real {insert expletive here}. You can’t help yourself. It happens to everybody. You’ve got like two years to pull it together — or it’s permanent.”

Power and stardom have a great many similarities I think.

Leadership – formal leadership – is a role some are asked to play. There are those who allow it to distort their vision of the world – and inflate their vision of themselves. They never “pull it together” – bleeding onto the people around them – creating an indelible stain it can take years to erase.

Neither a title – or fame – makes you better than you were before. And unless you’re careful it can make you less than you were before. 

Fred, where ever you are – thanks.



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