The notion of collaborative and partnership-oriented work models in organizations is not new. But, in some organizations and slices of industries, collaboration has become the dominant model—and the notion of “egolessness” has emerged as an ideal. This presents individuals with a very interesting problem when they separate from the group and seek new opportunities.
I sat in on a discussion last Friday where this was discussed indirectly. A successful facilitative servant leader was seeking a new position as a result of a funding cut in the organization she had been serving. Two other people in a similar situation had joined with her in the discussion regarding how to navigate this process given the dynamics of the market and the work they do—which is intensely focused on collaborative processes and facilitative servant leadership. All three of these people are very dedicated to the servant leadership model and to acting in a facilitative and supportive way as leaders. They seemed to feel that this made it difficult to use “I” or otherwise take credit for their contributions when talking to a prospective employer.
Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of the servant leader model, said “My good society will have strong individualism amid community.”
My personal values include the notion that the individual is of salience on her own―irrefutably―but not without some level of appropriate regard and connection to community. The individuals in the group comprise that group’s capability and that capability is enhanced by the formation of a sense of “team” which can be encouraged through the actions and attitudes of one of more individuals. The individual retains her “I-ness” even in the context of the group, though it is tempered by her participation in the group. She both contributes a unique essence which has identifiable qualities and is enhanced by that which is generative in the group’s behavior and identity. And, this does not require that she give up her identity and its unique value.
Indeed, strong individualism amid community is a desirable outcome of both team evolution and individual character development.
To see a dearth of terms such as “facilitated” related to outcomes and strong sense of “I” and individual delivery of all desired outcomes would seem strange on the resume of someone who holds strong values around truly collaborative processes. At the same time, it would also seem odd to see a lack of “I” in the description of their contribution to the organization. The challenge can be to see where “I” is truly “we” and “I” facilitated the outcome that was jointly delivered with others.
When I hear people talk about teams losing their egos and individuals striving for egolessness in organizations, I get a bit concerned and sometimes confused. “Big ego’s” have become such a problem in some organizations that we often hear about these “ego’s” in the press. This kind of dominance of one over all—often at the cost of the organization—is certainly something to be avoided. But transforming personal meaning into organizational or group success seems like another and more desirable way of looking at ego. To be without ego seems similar to being without a limbic brain: no ego, no choicemaking being; no limbic brain, no ability to make decisions. “I” am required in making a choice to be or act, and emotion, as mediated by the limbic brain, is required to decide upon the best course of action.
I am not usually a great lover of the tame and culturally-current principal of balance. I tend to prefer a value of selective focus. But, in this case, I would not see sense in giving up either the group or the individual in representing individual contributions in professional history. “I” is and remains, but not without regard to the context in which it exists and achieves its successes—and failures.
 Robert K. Greenleaf;Larry C. Spears. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition (Kindle Location 342). Kindle Edition.