Sitting across from Carlos Tavares, the chief executive officer of PSA Peugeot Citroen, he explained how he uses his love of race car driving to keep his ego in check.
I’d worked with Mr. Tavares for more than a year when he left his position as chief operating officer of the Renault Group to become the CEO of PSA, Europe’s second largest automaker. Although it had been nearly two years since I’d seen him, I felt at ease with him sitting in his new office just footsteps from Paris’s iconic Arc de Triomphe.
Born in Portugal and educated in France, Mr. Tavares communicated a genuine curiosity and quiet confidence that I admired. At Renault, he was always eager to hear my ideas and I was flattered and bolstered by his confidence in me.
My new book, Leader Designed: Become the Leader You Were Made to Be, was due out in the next few months, and I’d returned to Paris to see some key people and get their thoughts on what seems to be a global deficit of good leaders and what can be done to meet this growing need.
“I race cars,” said the long time race car aficionado, an amateur race car driver for more than 30 years. He explained that he loves his new job and that he is dedicated to the success of his company, but he emphasized that his company’s success was not about “me.”
I was quietly surprised. I knew Mr. Tavares fairly well and knew that he was far from an egomaniac, but he is the CEO of Europe’s second largest automaker. Only Volkswagen is bigger. And since taking over in 2014, he has increased the company’s profitability after years of declining sales and losses—beating all expectations in short order. In July, PSA posted a huge jump in its profit margins at its half-year results despite only moderate sales growth. Therefore, the increase had more to do with management rather than market growth. With that kind of success, many leaders would let it go to their heads, but not Tavares.
It was clear to me that this was a man who had his ego in check and his priorities in order. “I want my company to succeed and I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure my team has what it needs to get results, but I am also a husband, a father and a grandfather. Other people could run this company, but I’m the only one who can be a husband, a father and a grandfather to my family.
“I’m competitive, but I leave my ego on the race track. I want to win. I love to win, but I let my ego run the racetrack not the boardroom.”
And there it was: the perfect illustration of a leader who thought “we” and not “me.” It’s easy for leaders in government and business to believe their own publicity. They often surround themselves with sycophants who prove incapable of uttering anything contrary to their bosses’ opinion. Isolated in an echo chamber, these leaders become isolated and disconnected not only from the people that they lead but from reality—often leading to a sudden or protracted fall from grace.
So why does this happen? Fear. The problem with being on top is that there is only one place to go—down. Therefore, leaders can grow anxious and fearful of the future. How will they define themselves when they are no longer the leader? They can become selfish and self-serving. They routinely orchestrate controlled chaos around them in order to distract would-be rivals from their goal of ascension. These are the worse kinds of leaders because they slow progress and hurt morale.
The best leaders understand that their role is a privilege not a right. They possess a long-term vision not only for their company but for themselves. They know that change is inevitable and they embrace it. Great leaders are never afraid of taking the next step even if it means no longer leading, because these leaders are servants. They understand that for a moment in time they define a role, but the role never defines them. Therefore, it’s easier for these kinds of leaders to look forward to the next adventure, even without a title.
Great leaders, like Mr. Tavares, understand that they are entrusted with responsibilities for moment in time, to serve and to succeed. They do not use their position to satisfy their own ego or justify their self-worth.
As we consider what it means to be a good leader, we should look to those who possess the humility and the wisdom to understand that being a leader is about more than one person’s ambitions. Rather, it’s about facilitating and amplifying the ambitions of others.
Dana W. White is the founder and CEO of 1055 Grady, a leadership consulting firm in Washington. She served as the director of policy and strategic communications for the Renault-Nissan Alliance, as a foreign policy adviser for Senator John McCain and as the Taiwan Country Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Leader Designed: Become the Leader You Were Meant to Be was published in July. Learn more about Dana W. White at www.danawwhite.com. Connect with her on Twitter @leaderdesigned and Facebook at Leader Designed.