Today is an interesting day in history. May 10 marks the anniversary of Benedict Arnold’s victory at Ft. Ticonderoga during the American Revolution. It also marks the birthday of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of our 16th President. Here we find two men who have gone down in history for less than noble causes.
While Arnold gained fame throughout the war (most notably at the Battle of Saratoga), his most famous act was his betrayal of his country as he turned over the plans to West Point to a British spy named Major John Andre. Booth, of course, also gained fame through an act of treachery as he killed Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest President in American history.
Other than ignoble endings, what do these two men have in common? To me, the similar strain in their lives was an insatiable desire to build their ego. When we live for self, it always leads to destruction. Arnold was overlooked, abused, and mistreated and allowed that hurt to attack his ego. His response was to betray his country knowing the British would ultimately prevail. Booth was so filled with ego, anger, and racism that he actually believed his terrible deed would bring him fame across the South. Both men discovered they were terribly wrong.
Following his treachery, Arnold was allowed to command British troops for a season, but ultimately died in loneliness and isolation in England finding out that both sides believed “once a traitor, always a traitor.” Booth was shocked to discover the South did not approve his actions and was hunted down like a dog. After being mortally wounded, Booth died on the porch of the Garrett farm looking at his hands and saying, “Useless, useless.”
Ego is a powerful force we all have to wrestle. We have to balance a healthy view of ourselves with an unhealthy idea that we are something greater than we really are. Our culture does not value humility, but pride brings destruction. Great leaders keep their ego in check…not giving into self-pity nor too high an estimation of who we are and what we can do.
Great leaders need people who can freely speak into their lives and keep their ego and pride in check. Arnold and Booth did not allow those around them to speak into their hearts, but instead listened only to their hurt and their pride. We all have hurt in our lives. We need to know how to carry the hurts of our past in such a way that they do not continue to hurt us and bring destruction in our lives.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called ‘Ego’.” That dog is always there. To end strong, we have to keep that dog in the right place. Arnold and Booth got bit. May we not make their mistake.
To read more about Benedict Arnold, click on “The Book” above and order a copy of my book “Founding Leadership: Business and Personal Leadership Principles From the Men Who Brought You the American Revolution.”