Humility and Ego: A Lesson in Leadership

Yoda teaches Skywalker about humble leadership.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

 Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu
With Walter Thompson-Hernandez, author of The Compton Cowboys.
Source: Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

“We are what they grow beyond, that is the true burden of all masters.”

In the Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, the ageless Master Yoda teaches "young'" Luke Skywalker a message to inspire and humble all masters—teachers, coaches, counselors, leaders, parents. A master must always balance ego with humility. Even as they gain more mastery, they must remain humble. They do not need to be perfect. They simply pass on what they have learned, both strengths and weaknesses.

We are reminded that perfection is neither possible nor necessary in life. We are all simply human, and to be human is to be imperfect. Even those we call masters are imperfect. We need to forgive ourselves for being vulnerable, for mistakes, for failures, and do our best to meet the next challenge in life. Leaders of any kind do not need to be perfectly strong but just wholly dedicated to enabling and empowering their students to fulfill their potential. Hopefully, our students surpass us in greatness.

In our experiences in education and training in psychology we often feel vulnerable but can’t talk about it, feeling afraid to go there, and if we do have the courage to do so, may feel dismissed or ignored. Our professors impress us with their credentials and accomplishments. Our training is toward making us competent, even super-competent—like our supervisors.

But of course, we make mistakes. We don’t know the answers all the time. But since we can’t share our feelings of being vulnerable, we are made to feel that we’re not measuring up. It’s hard to feel that we always have to know what we’re doing. We long to just be ourselves, a person who sometimes doesn’t know where we’re going.

It helps to be able to own our feelings of vulnerability as real, normal, and even natural, even if we can’t share them with our faculty. In my graduate school, I was fortunate to find mentors who acknowledged vulnerability as a key to our education as clinical psychologists. At that time, Richard Katz, Kiyo Morimoto, and Chester Pierce were some of the professors at Harvard who were enabling us to face our vulnerability.

How did they do it? They modeled it for us. They empowered us by showing us that they themselves were imperfect, they too faced the same issues as we did. They too did not always know what to do. They taught us that just because we made mistakes or didn’t know the answers or were confused about which direction to take, it didn’t indicate our failure, but affirmed our growing ability to listen to, care for, and help our clients. By loosening our grip on having to be competent almost at all costs, we could affirm our humanity. Accepting our vulnerability as both real and valuable offered us a doorway toward more effective practice as psychologists.

The young man in the photos is my former student, Walter Thompson-Hernandez. I’m inspired to write this article as he becomes an author of his first book, The Compton Cowboys. I’ve watched him grow through his student days from budding academic scholar to rejecting that path and finding his authentic self by becoming a writer for The New York Times, as a gifted storyteller. Walter’s stories come from the people he meets and gets to know, giving voice to the humanity and struggles of those most alienated, oppressed, and marginalized. A multi-media artist, his work honors the lives of people and communities where compassion and belonging exist along with the trauma and tragedy of city life.

Walter calls me “Sensei,” a Japanese word that shows the respect he gives me as an elder, a mentor. Although it is often used in a hierarchical sense, by the characters with which it is written, it simply means “to live before.” And to me, to live before is not only chronological, but can be experiential. As his mentor, I have always shown my vulnerability, only teaching what I know, no more, and no less. Walter to me is also a Sensei, as he experiences things I never have and never will. Observing him fulfill his potential as a human being may be a burden as Yoda says, but is also a great joy of being a master.


Katz, R. & Murphy-Shigematsu, S. "The Experience of Vulnerability: A Key to the Education of Health Professionals." In Synergy, Healing, and Empowerment: Insights from Cultural Diversity. Alberta, CA: Brush Education