15 Jun 2015 17:24 IST

Rule Number 6!

Or, why you shouldn’t take yourself seriously

Benjamin Zander, the top-flight conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, narrates the following story in his leadership seminars:

Two prime ministers were sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by a hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.

The visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of this Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask are the other rules?” “Well, there aren’t any,” responds the resident Prime Minister.

Leadership derailers

This is a very useful message for the top-flight MBAs as well. Of all the leadership derailers, the one that derails most leaders with a flourishing career is what success does to them – entitling them to take themselves seriously! This begins to manifest in many ways. For example:

* In their conversations, when they want to have the last word every time

* In their behaviours, when they turn into ‘alpha males & females’

* In their discussions, when they value their own ideas higher than those of their colleagues

* In their actions, when they would rather walk fast alone than walk far with others

The way it begins to hurt young and fast growing MBAs (and of course other professionals) is very insidious. It catches before you realize it does. In a sense, it is akin to the often-quoted “boiling frog syndrome.” You do not even realize you are becoming a victim of this behaviour - of taking yourself goddamn too seriously. As you keep doing this, an interesting thing happens and that is exactly opposite what you expected! People around you begin to start taking you even less seriously than before, making you and your views less and less relevant. Eventually, this leads to your becoming a laughing stock if not a stale cheque in the scheme of things.

Avoiding the trap

How can you avoid suffering from this? Well, there are several ways in which you can avoid walking into this huge trap. Some suggestions are below:

1. Develop a deep sense of humility: This is about recognizing that you are not the only smart person around! By the way, humility is not thinking less of yourself as is often misunderstood by many. It is actually thinking less often about yourself.

2. Develop a healthy respect for views that are different from yours: Intellect and creativity are very widely and vastly distributed and it pays to recognize that we work with gifted colleagues whose views are as valuable.

3. Increase your listening skills: Studies have established that career success and growing up the ladder often leads to an unintended effect on our listening capacity: both our ability and willingness to listen erode. Added to this is another side effect. We tend to misunderstand “not speaking” as “listening.” More often than not, “not speaking” turns out to be merely, “waiting to talk!” And when we are “waiting to talk,” we are only letting the voice in the head take over that says we know better than the person we are pretending to listen to.

4. Develop a child-like curiosity in understanding what others may have to say on important matters: Children have enormous curiosity: as we have experienced it ourselves in growing up. This opens up our hearts and minds to possibilities that exist outside of our experience, knowledge and exposure.

5. Keep a watch on your hot buttons: All of us have our “hot buttons’ that trigger off our anxiety. Keeping a watch on this helps us to control our desire to be “right all the time” or “know all the answers.”

Well, there can be many more, some your own unique approach to reining yourself. Remember real personal growth involves growing on the job, and not swelling! The less often we as MBAs and professionals take ourselves seriously, the larger become our chances of continuing to do well and avoid being derailed. In other words, keeping the Rule Number Six on your desk and your heart is the true yellow brick road to your success!

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