How do you develop the authentic humility and fulfillment necessary to lead yourself and others?

Tim Tebow’s contagious humility starts with his thank-you’s (see my recent blog post). Before he responds to reporters’ questions, he thanks Jesus, his teammates, and his fans. Then he attributes the good outcomes to a broad set of factors, and acknowledges his errors when things didn’t go well while he was on the field. He never talks as though he’s making things happen on his own for his own benefit. He always acknowledges his sources of support in its many forms.

Contrast Tebow with me when I was in my twenties, making millions and being interviewed by the press (albeit many fewer millions, and less and smaller media outlets). I needed to be seen, to be approved, and to be acknowledged for the contribution I made. I was not about being part of something bigger than myself. I was needy and scared, not grateful and humble.

The ego is a powerful force. The illusions it creates are the source of confusion that leads to reactivity and makes us want more of what doesn’t make us happy. It takes work to tame the ego. Yet until we do, we are subject to its neediness and self-centeredness. Filtering our egos so we can see the world as it is, is the central tenant to many spiritual traditions (particularly those from the East) and the purpose of most spiritual practices.

Humility and seeing past your false self is also a central tenant of sustainable leadership coaching. Effective leaders consistently see themselves as part of something bigger. This principle has been supported by Jim Collins’s research beginning with Built to Last and carried through in three subsequent books. Great leaders focus on the organization’s core values and purpose and never take personal credit for corporate success. Not so great leaders (and stressed out ones) think corporate success is about them and that they are in control.

Do You Seek Success or Fulfillment?

We’re not in control. Yet we often act as if the opposite is true. We expect that if we work smart and hard enough good things will happen. We plan on being affirmed, successful and comfortable. We get so attached to these outcomes we fear failure or looking unsuccessful. Even in light of success, the result of trying to control everything for our benefit is that we walk around looking like a child trying to prove our worthiness—not very inspiring. This is the curse of focusing on being successful. This is the curse of the ego running amok.

If, on the other hand, you seek fulfillment, you have a shot at finding peace. Fulfillment starts with acceptance—acceptance of yourself and everything that’s happening in the moment. Acceptance ultimately leads to a feeling of fullness, then a desire to connect with others, then a feeling that your life has a purpose that’s bigger than you. With such fullness and purpose you naturally want to serve others. How do we nurture acceptance that will lead to wanting to serve others?

One Simple Practice

What could be stronger than our ego? How can we overcome our natural tendency to focus on ourselves? How do we grow up the needy child that lives in us? How do we let go enough to experience heaven?

Heaven is a state of mind and heart that’s available right here, right now. Heaven is a choice. If you can’t experience heaven now, chances are you won’t be able to experience it when you make your first or next $10 million, find the perfect mate, or die. Cracking the safe to get into heaven is an inside job.

Getting into heaven requires you to tame your ego and open your heart. There are many ways to do this including meditation, service, and a big personal crisis. Another way is to foster gratitude. Gratitude starts with saying “yes” to what is. It requires you to over-ride resistance to what is unfolding and to your past. It requires you to acknowledge your fear of failure and to take responsibility for your judgments of yourself and others (e.g., “The problem is that I’m not good enough.” Or, “This isn’t working because she’s an idiot.”).

Fake It ’Til You Make It

Don’t take my word for it that gratitude will lead you to Nirvana but don’t discount it until you give it a try. Start with an experiment. See if you can be grateful and fearful at the same time. Think of something you’re scared about. Now focus your thinking on something you’re grateful for. Which is the more powerful and sustaining thought? Try this switch in your thinking the next time you feel a charge of emotion like fear or anger: Exhale and think of something for which you are grateful.

This practice will change your perspective and help you tame your ego. You’ll become less reactive. When you’re grateful you focus on the now and stop expecting things, dreading things. You become humble. Your heart opens. You’re prone to give to others out of a feeling of abundance. As you develop a practice of being grateful for everything and of accepting everything you’ll find there is nothing missing, nothing wrong with anything. This is the path to aliveness in the moment. This is heaven.

Gratitude also requires you to receive. This season is a good time to remember how to receive. This is the season to celebrate by simply being grateful for what you have and for all the events and circumstances that had to conspire in order to for your life to be just as it is. This is the season to allow yourself to receive the gifts life and other people give you.

Change the Conversation

Over the next couple of weeks, around the dinner tables and circles you find yourself in, stop, exhale, and ask people to each share two things for which they are grateful.

In your quiet moments each day leading up to your final reflections on 2011, create your gratitude lists. As your attention is brought to what you are grateful for, you will set a clear intention for what you want more of. What a great way to launch yourself into 2012.