Are you more of a giver or taker? Too focused on yourself? On ego versus service and focusing on ourselves versus something bigger.
Are you a giver or a taker?
We all give and take to varying degrees, but what’s the greater tendency in your life? Are you more of a giver or a taker?
Most of us have core values and beliefs. Often, there’s something we believe in most of all, something at the top of our belief list. How we spend our time, energy, and money is a good indicator of our true beliefs and priorities.
As a thought experiment, consider your life as a binary choice between focusing on yourself or on something bigger. Which would you choose, and why? Or consider it as a dial: how far would you place the dial on one side or the other?
Making such a choice could have a huge impact on everything in your life: your happiness, sense of life satisfaction, marriage/partnership, family, friendships, work, and leadership effectiveness.
A Focus on Self
Some of us are more focused on ourselves—on things like our personal achievement, status, wealth, power, and notoriety—than we’d like to admit. Such a focus can lead us to devote an inordinate amount of time and effort to work. In his book, Wild at Heart, author and counselor John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.
With such a focus on self, we may strive mightily for achievement and success. When introducing ourselves, we may begin with our work title. We may assess our value by our work, title, accomplishments, and possessions. It may be good work providing useful goods and services to others. But we’re wrapped up in climbing the ladder and getting ahead.
“There is an unhealthy desire for prestige and money that is ruining people’s lives. The desire for prestige and money is why we: 1) spend an outrageous sum of money on education, 2) kill ourselves at jobs we don’t like, 3) put up with colleagues and bosses we despise, 4) never pursue our dreams, 5) neglect our children, and 6) eventually fill our hearts with regret.”
-Sam Dogen, founder, Financial Samurai
(Related traps can include feeling needy for approval and recognition, having our identity wrapped up too much in our work, constantly comparing ourselves to others or feeling behind, getting pulled by the “prestige magnet,” and getting trapped by success.)
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Often we’re not even aware of them. Check out these common traps of living to see what’s inhibiting your quality of life and fulfillment.
A focus on self can show up in other ways as well, such as inordinate amounts of time spent on hobbies, travel, adventures, or experiences.
A Focus on Something Bigger
Alternatively, with a focus on something bigger, we may work diligently to earn a living, but we devote our time and effort more to something other than ourselves, such as:
- A community
- A cause (e.g., educational opportunity, sustainability, social justice, suicide prevention).
“The quality of a true warrior is that he is in service to a purpose greater than himself; that is, to a transcendent cause.”
-Robert Bly, Iron John
With such a focus, we might introduce ourselves not by our title but by our dominant priority, such as:
- The spouse of X and parent of Y and Z
- An environmental advocate
- A Buddhist or Christian
Why focus on something other than ourselves? To escape the trap of ego and self-absorption.
Most people these days focus much more on themselves than on others or beliefs and causes. Which focus is dominant in your life? in his book, Life’s Great Question, consultant and author Tom Rath makes the case that we need a whole new way to think about our life’s work: that we should move from thinking that “we are what we do” to “we are how we help.” Life’s great question, he suggests, is how we contribute to the world.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
When Bob started his business career, he was an ex-military officer and young Harvard MBA with a singular goal:
“I want to run something.”
He was very ambitious and worked extremely hard, throwing himself fully into his work.
After some years of marriage, his wife, June, challenged him on his long hours and heavy travel. His response?
“I’m doing this for you.”
But she saw through it.
“No. You’re doing this for you.”
In his heart, he knew she was right.
Another inflection point: he saw fellow executives acting unethically and treating people transactionally. So he parted ways and went in search of not just a new workplace but also better ways to lead. He had an epiphany when he encountered Robert Greenleaf’s writings on “servant leadership”—on employing leadership not to advance one’s own position, ego, and power but to serve others.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In his retirement, Bob realized that while his work for 30 years as a business executive and his 20 years of teaching leadership may have been good, something was missing. He had practiced and taught important practices and principles, including:
- leading ethically
- believing in and trusting people
- focusing on a shared purpose, values, and vision
- unleashing the latent potential in others
- approaching leadership as serving others
- pursuing a quest to build an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization
All this was valuable and well intentioned, but Bob had often fallen into the trap of wanting and needing to be the leader of those efforts or the teacher of those principles. His ego and pride were still driving him, as June had pointed out years before.
In recent years, Bob rediscovered his Christian faith after years of moving between a secular focus and spiritual seeking. He now realizes something bigger than himself should have been at the center of his work and teaching. For him, that means God and others.
Bob had previously defined his life purpose as, “Helping to make the world a better place.” Now, he has redefined it as, “To love and serve God and others.” Today, something bigger and better than himself is dominant in his mind.
“Living in the light of eternity changes your priorities.”
-Rick Warren, pastor and author
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Gregg has had similar tests and inflection points. After business school, he joined a dynamic startup that scaled up very rapidly. With a big portfolio of the company’s business under his charge, he was all in. He was working long hours and traveling all over the country chasing new deals critical to the company’s survival. In the process, he was straining his health, wearing himself out, and distancing himself from his family, friends, and fiancé.
Eventually, he decided it was time to jump off the train and get his life back. It was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Years later, he found himself working from home with a young baby girl and suffering under the strain of intense work and parenting obligations. Everything felt heavy until one day he remembered that being attentive to their little girl was more important than any new deals or client engagements. And when he turned himself fully over to her, things clicked and became much easier.
Gregg defines his purpose as “helping people lead good lives.” That includes his family and friends as well as his readers, students, and clients. And himself.
Avoiding the Extremes
With the complexity of our lives (with families, finances, obligations, and more), we should be careful not to oversimplify with overly sharp distinctions like giver versus taker, as that can lead to unhelpful and unhealthy extremes.
As we pursue something larger than ourselves, for example, we’re wise to do it sustainably by taking good care of ourselves as we do so. Otherwise, we’ll burn out and get ourselves into trouble—with our health, relationships, character, or otherwise.
We should also avoid the trap of using our service and contributions as fodder for needy egos hungry for the appreciation and accolades that can come from being so civic- or service-minded. Yes, even service can be downgraded into an ego trip.
As we get the focus off ourselves and dive into something deeper, we should also be careful about setting boundaries and not letting people take advantage of us, especially if we have people-pleasing, perfectionist, or hyper-achiever tendencies that can lead to problems, including overwork or work addiction. Indeed, there are dangers on both sides of this equation. And we also need to make our way in the work world with practical considerations about income, debt, retirement savings, and more. Ideally, we can build service into our work.
We encourage you to find some calling bigger than yourself. In doing so, you’ll avoid the trap of ego and self-absorption.
We also encourage you to take care of yourself and enjoy your life, to love others and love yourself. Even as we love others and serve them, we can also love the precious lives we’ve been given and do good things in the world.
- On the dial between focusing on self and something bigger, are you happy with your current setting, or does it need an adjustment?
- Are there important priorities in your life that need more of your attention?
- What will you do about it, starting today?
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
- “How Ego and Pride Derail Leaders”
- “Escaping the Trap of Our Ego”
- “The Leader’s Worst Enemy: Ego”
- “Are You a Bucket Filler or a Bucket Dipper?”
- “The Hidden Trap Catching Many High-Achievers (Neediness)”
- “The Powerful Pull of the Prestige Magnet”
- “Are You Trapped by Success?”
- “The Perils of ‘Climbing Mode’ in Our Career”
- “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”
- “The Comparison Trap”
- See also our Servant Leadership Series
Postscript: Quotations on Ego vs. Service
- “Indeed, this life is a test. It is a test of many things—of our convictions and priorities, our faith and our faithfulness, our patience and our resilience, and in the end, our ultimate desires.” -Sheri L. Dew, author
- “Create a ladder of values and priorities in your life, reminding yourself of what really matters to you.” -Robert Greene, author
- “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader
- “The biggest derailer for leaders is excessive ego.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, co-authors, Triple Crown Leadership
- “You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” -Paul Graham, “How to Do What You Love”
- “Ego is the enemy.” -Ryan Holiday, author
- “There is joy in self-forgetfulness. So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.” -Helen Keller, writer and disability rights advocate
- “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” -Maxime Lagacé, Canadian professional ice hockey player
- “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” -Mahatma Gandhi
- “It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.” -Albert Einstein
- “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and philosopher
- “Man can no longer live for himself alone.” -Albert Schweitzer, theologian, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician
- “Whom do you serve? Yourself or others?… Leadership is not all about me; it’s about us.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, co-authors, Triple Crown Leadership
- “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
- “Let all that you do be done in love.” -1 Corinthians 16:14
- “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world… life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.” -Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
- “I came that you may have and enjoy life and have it in abundance, until it overflows.” -John 10:10
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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!