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Leadership Lessons | Do you need your own “Bonfire of the Vanities”?

“There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it.”

– Mark Twain


Do You Need to Start Your Own Bonfire?

Barely 500 years ago, Girolamo Savonarola was an outspoken and strident critic of the current order, angrily vilifying the worldly possessions that tempted people to become sinners.

He was ultimately excommunicated from the Catholic church, condemned for heresy, stripped of his priestly garments, hanged, and his body burned in the town square in Florence, Italy, a stark and ignominious ending to a life committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Tom Wolfe wrote his first novel on this subject

Tom Wolfe, the esteemed American writer, published his first novel in 1987. (It was originally produced in the serial style of Charles Dickens, with 27 articles appearing in Rolling Stone magazine beginning in 1984.)

Wolfe was determined to expose the outlandish excesses of New York society in the 1980s, which were top of mind for many Americans in the same year that Oliver Stone’s infamous movie, Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas, was released. 

The Bonfire of the Vanities

There is a compelling message in Wolfe’s novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, a phase taken from the infamous public exhibitions that Savonarola instituted in Renaissance Florence 500 years ago.

Remember … you won’t BECOME a better leader until you start BEING a better leader. Start by making sure you’re not creating your own distractions and you know where you’re pointing that finger … and implement the one-word formula to avoid disaster.

Savonarola railed against the vices that he thought were destroying society.

As his tone became more violent, he dramatized his moral campaign through the “bonfire of the vanities” in which he and his followers collected articles that they believed tempted people to sin, e.g., objects like cosmetics, artworks, and books as well mirrors, fine dresses, paintings, playing cards, manuscripts of secular songs and even musical instruments … and burned them in the town square.

Are Your Vanities getting in the Way of Your Success?

Is it time for each of us to burn some of our personal vanities in the conference room to highlight what’s holding us back and clear the debris on our pathway to success?

The dictionary defines vanity as “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc., and while “bonfires” are extreme manifestations, there may be some metaphorical power that will help us purge the roadblocks.

There’s a Reason that PRIDE is considered the Mother of All Sins

In my series based on the seven deadly sins (soon to be published as an e-book), I previously discussed vanity’s conjoined twin, Pride, seen by most philosophers as the mother of all sins.

Like the embarrassing incidents … and shame … that befall us when pride lights our way, vanity also clouds our business judgment and makes us unable to see objectively how we got where we are and who helped us along the way.

(If humility is the antithesis of pride, Jim Collins in his books, Good to Great and his most recent, Great by Choice, presented compelling arguments that humility is one of the singular qualities of the successful leader.)

Do you need your own Bonfire of the Vanities?

I like the vivid imagery of the bonfire of the vanities because it emphasizes the extraordinary steps we should hasten to take to overcome our vainglory to achieve the breakthroughs that will make our business more successful.

Every week, we’re sharing valuable and practical leadership tips and tools to help you BECOME a better leader. Why not get these valuable tips and techniques sent directly to your inbox every week so you don’t miss them?

The mirrors and cosmetics burned in Florence Italy are particularly relevant metaphors to make this point.

Never Forget the Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson’s famous song, Man in the Mirror, also reminds us of the downfalls of our vanity:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his way

And no message could have been any clearer

If you wanna make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself and then make a change.

Make Sure you’re not Getting in the Way of Your Own Progress

In the same spirit in which we discussed “destructive enrichment” last time, a bonfire of the vanities is a vivid and glaring invitation to check our ego at the door, use the mirror rather than a window to assess accountability and set fire to our vanities so we can make sound decisions bereft of the clutter that impedes our progress.

What will you include in your bonfire?


This article was published in the June 19, 2012 edition of the North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, and a weekly business newspaper which I have served as a regular columnist for over four years. The Business Journal covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties. The electronic version of this article, as published by the North Bay Business Journal, may be found here.



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