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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Healthy Egos

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

There is no cause and effect, subtlety or nuance… it is really straightforward. To make it to the top of the heap in today's business world, you need a healthy ego. But what exactly defines "healthy?" A healthy ego is confident, comfortable in one's own skin, bullish (as opposed to bearish), and secure enough to allow others to have their own healthy ego. A healthy ego is not threatened by talent or intelligence, but instead embraces it, and dare I say it, uses it.

An unhealthy ego feeds itself on the denigration of others. It conflates pomposity with presence. It diminishes instead of builds, it bullies, it wears a mask of bravado hiding the fear that any day the facade will be torn away. It secretly cowers while crowing.

For the first dozen or so years of my career my boss was more the former than the latter… thank goodness. Still, he did once try a more unhealthy tactic, and it didn't work. He never tried it again… at least with me.

I had information, for his ears only, and requested a meeting through his secretary. At the appointed time I entered his office. He made a little show of taking off his wristwatch, placing it on his desk, and said, "You have five minutes." I turned around and pulled the door open to leave without saying a word. He said, "Where are you going?"

Over my shoulder I said, "What I have to tell you could dramatically change our business, but it will take longer than five minutes." I took one more step out the door.

He said, "Wait a minute. Get back in here." He put his watch back on and we never played that little "power" game again.

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that my little ego standoff and bit of disrespect might have actually made him a better CEO. Think of that! A big powerful CEO learned something from a pitiful young junior executive. That's how it is, I guess. With ears and eyes wide open, we might learn something from almost anyone.

A couple of years ago in a video, I used a marking knife to make lines on some walnut, then rubbed chalk over the scribed lines and wiped away the excess. The previously almost invisible lines stood out clearly. A viewer commented, "That chalk tip made the whole video worth watching." I saved that comment… printed it out… it has a place of honor on my bulletin board.

Of course, without a healthy ego, I could have interpreted that comment as, "The rest of the video was a waste of time," but instead, ego intact, I thought, "Even a pitiful down to earth woodworker can occasionally provide someone a useful tip." Even though it is hard work, I continue to make videos, hoping to again someday provide a nugget that helps.

The point of this little story is simple. Even the smallest action, the most forgettable incident, the seemingly insignificant, the least calculated or least carefully planned, can have an impact, for better or worse. My boss and I were both changed, fortunately for the better, through a ten second private exchange. A video-watcher took ten seconds to leave a comment that brightened my day and provided motivation. Either situation could just as easily gone the other way.

We live in an interesting time when we can make a comment and the world will see. We can inspire and motivate or denigrate and degrade… and we can do it in seconds, with almost no forethought. We all live in digitally contrived glass houses today, our every tweet, text, comment, and utterance exposed and naked, in perpetuity… immediate and, likely, widespread. Be careful. Please.

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