My agency in London would call me frequently with offers to go to people’s homes and cook for their guests, whether a house party, family gathering or a larger event. On one such occasion it was a weekend at a house in Essex. I arrived on Friday afternoon and was greeted by Mr and Mrs Lewis, the owners of a large pseudo Georgian, almost new, house. They quickly ushered me to my sleeping quarters and then directly into the kitchen. There I met a charming but shy Filipino couple. She was the maid and he was the gardener and odd job man. I found it odd that there were four steps down into the kitchen and then to my amazement I saw another set of four steps up to a large green baize door. On the other side of that door was the dining room and Mrs Lewis showed me into the dining room. She said I didn’t need to re-enter the room again over the weekend as all the serving dishes were kept in the kitchen. I got the message this was going to be a very different experience for me.
During the weekend I never met the guests and on Sunday evening the Lewis’s came to me in the kitchen, politely thanked me for all the delicious meals, handed me a cheque and said goodbye. Just after that one of the guests came into the kitchen and was effusive over the food and handed me some bank notes. He said. “This is to show my appreciation of your cooking. Will you come to my house and cook for my guests?” I was gracious and thanked him and let him know he needed to contact the agency. I felt embarrassed about the money. Behind me the Filipino couple sat watching and listening. There was nothing for them. The wife had worked so hard all weekend with a houseful of guests, making their beds, serving all the meals and cleaning the house. I handed them the money and thanked them for all their help. It was the least I could do. Needless to say when I returned to London I spoke with my agency and asked never to be sent to people like the Lewis’s or their guests ever again!
The Myth of the Aristocracy
In contrast to this experience I had the privilege, on many occasions, to cook for a couple called Lord and Lady Blakenham. The first weekend, I went to their country estate, a beautiful old cottage farm near Ipswich. I was met at the station by Lady B in her little Wolesley Hornet (an upmarket version of the mini). She had asked me to bring dinner with me for that night as I was arriving late from London. “Did you bring yourself a fillet steak Gilly?” “Yes I did” I replied. “Good", she said. “You are our guest for dinner tonight”.
A Sense of Humility
Lady B took me into her farmhouse kitchen (they lived in a grand house in Holland Park during the week) and showed me around. She opened all the cupboards and said she hoped they were clean enough as she had had to fire her live-in chef. He left the kitchen in such a dirty state she felt she couldn’t ask her staff to clean it, so she did it! That evening I joined the Blakenhams for dinner. I sat on the right of Lady B, Lord B was on her left and I was served first by Hass, the butler. I felt honoured and learned so much about them over a relaxed meal.
During the weekend I cooked for adult children and young grandchildren with meals in the nursery and the dining room. I got to know all the family and was invited to play tennis (but had no time!) though I did enjoy swimming in their pool. In the afternoons I joined the family and friends as Lady B’s guest for tea which she insisted on making, even though she always burnt the teacakes! At the end of the weekend Lord B used to give me strawberries, cream from the farm and other goodies to take back to London. It was the start of a long friendship and many weekends at Little Blakenham Farm.
So what has this to do with the ego, self esteem and humility? In this context the Lewis’s were full of their self importance to the point of arrogance. In all the years I cooked I went to some very beautiful and stately homes; theirs was the only one with a green baize door. It felt like "Upstairs and Downstairs" of the Victorian era!
The Danger of Egos in the Workplace
These contrasts are sometimes demonstrated in the workplace by managers who see themselves as above others. They are perfect, and everyone else is wrong. They feel superior and have a need for approval by others. They are insecure. I knew a sales manager like that a few years ago. He was arrogant and treated his fellow senior management colleagues as being inferior to him. He felt he was the only team member who was right and it was everyone else who needed to change, not him! It was only when he told the MD that he was the worst leader he’d ever worked for, that his employment was terminated. It was too late. Also the manufacturing manager’s tolerance for the sales manager’s behaviour had terminated and he resigned his position.
Humility on the other hand is the opposite of arrogant. Lady B didn’t have to clean her kitchen or invite me to join her for dinner. She did it because she had a genuine respect for all people regardless of their role or background. We meet leaders like that in our workplaces, who are not necessarily CEOs. These people put others in front of themselves. They genuinely care about others. They have high self esteem, they feel secure within themselves and as I say: “love themselves, warts and all”!
The Leader Who Really Cares
I am proud to have known someone close to me called Hugh who had no ego even though he grew up in a house with eleven servants. Hugh’s father died when he was eight and family circumstances changed although he still went to university. Then came the war and he was captured and became a POW in a Japanese camp for three and a half years. After the war he headed a medical school for 32 years. During that time he treated professors, students, all staff, including the porters, with equal respect. He genuinely cared about them and as a result he was highly respected, even when he had to make tough decisions.
There are two different kinds of people who say “I know”. The first is the person who is a “know all”; who knows better than everyone else and lives life from the outside-in. The second is the person who knows who he or she is at a deep level; who has a quiet confidence and trusts beyond the ego to the inner state of “knowing”. This person is intuitive and demonstrates a state of presence, not having all the answers, but able to draw them out from others and him or herself. The POW was an outstanding leader with that sense of knowing. He was also my Father.
This Proverb sums up the good and bad of the ego:
It is the nature of the ego to take, and the nature of the spirit to share”.