Icarus: A Cautionary Tale for the Overambitious

When it came to fables and useful myths to demonstrate a point, the Greeks had it going on.

The story of Icarus is no exception. In this Greek myth, Icarus follows his father in fleeing the city of Crete.  His father cobbles together wings for them both made out of wax and feathers – as one does when one is in a pickle and is resourceful.

Because he’s wise and experienced (like lots of dads) Icarus’ father cautions Icarus to religiously follow his flight path – neither flying too high so as to melt the wax, or too low so as to fall into the sea. 

And like lots of young lads, Icarus dutifully agrees to his father’s face, but then goes ahead and does something completely different. As he starts to experience the dizzying heights and becomes totally buzzed out on the flying gig, Icarus decides to ignore the wisdom in his father’s words and pushes himself to fly higher and higher.  Anyone with teenage boys can probably relate at this point. And what do you know? Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax melts, his feathers fall off his body and Icarus falls into the sea. He’s toast.

Greek myths weren’t sugar-coated, that’s for sure.

As well as for teenage boys who don’t listen to their parents, this Greek myth is also a cautionary tale for leaders. When we become overambitious or giddy with our own ego, success and advancement, we too, can become a bit Icarus-like.  

Don’t get me wrong. It’s one thing to strive for your career goals and be the best you can be. It’s smart to remain focused on your career and to celebrate and enjoy your successes along the way. But it’s altogether another thing when we let our ego and personal ambitions override what leadership is all about – which is lifting others up. We only need to take a peek at the behaviour of certain world leaders at the moment to see this in action.

Exhibiting Icarus-like behaviour in leadership might look like the following:

  • Letting our successes go to our head and not remaining humble.
  • Allowing our ego steer the ship. Focusing way more on the “I” and not on the “we”.
  • Focusing more on the perception of success, rather than the attainment of true positive outcomes. You often see this in leaders who are great at managing up, but not so hot on managing down – leading their own team.
  • Hogging the limelight and not giving credit to others when it’s due.
  • Focusing exclusively on the giddy heights of growth, without pausing to consolidate, recuperate and reflect. This can happen at an organisational, team and individual level.
  • Falling in love with your own idea, without pausing to assess the risks it might carry.
  • Not listening to wise and experienced people whose judgment you trust.

All of these are less than ideal outcomes, when it comes to leadership. But, as the Greeks would say, “Nothing bad is without something good”.

The fantastic feature about fables are that they lead us quickly to their illustration of a moral lesson. We have the chance to learn from them vicariously and choose a better route.

So, here are six remedies to the all-too-common Icarus dilemma:

  1. Learn to challenge your own thinking and encourage your employees to do the same. Don’t take your ideas at face value, but instead play devil’s advocate or seek the counsel of people who are likely to hold opposing views. In having to explore and defend our thinking, we are able to see how robust (or not) it truly is.
  2. Seek out feedback from others about your strengths – and your weaknesses. As difficult or confronting as it can be, be particularly open to receiving feedback about your work-ons. This is where the greatest learning opportunities lie, and self-awareness is a useful buffer against the Icarus trap.
  3. Take your mind off the next role and focus on achieving your current KPIs. That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan your career, but you shouldn’t do this at the expense of what you’re charged with in the here and now. Which leads me to my next point…
  4. Take responsibility for the good and the bad that occurs under your watch. This is the sign of a responsible leader.  You may not have caused it, but you’re accountable for it.
  5. Promote others over yourself.  This may seem counterintuitive, but this can actually lead to better judgement of you. This is about embracing cooperation over competition.  Some of the best and most successful leaders I have worked with virtually always use the language of “we” or “my team” vs “I”. They regularly give their team credit.  They also delegate for development and allow their team members access to the limelight and opportunities to shine in front of others.
  6. Build the metaphorical pause into your leadership practice. Don’t keep going for bigger and better all the time, without the corresponding reflection and reset. Allow time for consolidation before you take the next push.

Ambition has its place, and it will get you further than you can possibly hope to travel without it. But following these tips keeps ambition within its context.

And it might just save you from having your own Icarus moment.  

Related: The ‘L’ Word and Why It’s Central to Your Leadership Success