“Ego is the invisible line item on every company’s profit and loss statement.”
—David Marcum and Steven Smith in egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), Fireside, 2007
Nothing can be more debilitating in an organization than a leader with an ego. If you work for a leader driven by ego, your ability to cope can be pushed to the limit. In organizations, leaders with out-of-control egos are responsible for huge losses in productivity and profits.
In today’s culture that promotes self-worth and self-focus, egotism appears to be a growing trend that often gets rewarded. However, outsized egos are behind the struggle organizations have in keeping good people, doing the right thing, earning the trust of customers, and enjoying long-term prosperity.
Egotism is easy to spot, but its effects are hard to understand, and solutions are challenging. A definition of an egotist is someone focused on themselves with little regard for others. Egotists have an unhealthy belief in their own importance.
Author Ryan Holiday, in his book, Ego Is The Enemy (Penguin, 2016), defines ego as a sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Ego is what drives many leaders to excel in their fields, but it leaves them (and their organizations) vulnerable to failure. In a world of ambition with high rewards for success, big egos seem to come with the territory. But for effective leaders who want to build sustainable success, ego is the inner enemy.
The Inner Struggles of Leaders with Big Egos
For any leader, the risks of big ego are magnified. An inflated perception of oneself distorts reality, both inwardly and outwardly.
- Egotists regard themselves as superior, set apart from everyone else.
- They are entitled and important simply because they want to be.
- They know everything, or at least don’t believe they can be taught anything of significance in their immediate world.
- With a rear-view-mirror perspective, they rely on past accomplishments, convinced these are enough to carry them wherever they want to go.
Because of the need to protect their sense of superiority, egotists are disconnected from the world, often naïve about its workings. In their minds, everything is simplified to conform to their personal perceptions. They are blind to “uncooperative” agents, or refuse to deal with them. They refashion the truth to better support their ego. This causes the egotist to carve out a false life to be lived out in a false world. The resulting blind spots lead to a distorted worldview and behaviors that aren’t appropriate or effective.
Since it can’t be their fault when things don’t go their way, egotists resent the people or systems they feel have let them down. They may adopt a persecution mentality, playing the victim of “unfair” treatment. Caught up with distorted thoughts and imagery, they ratchet up the superiority even more, to regain position.
Unintentionally, the egotist places a barrier between themselves and the world. Their self-serving frame of mind always wants more. Even with no scores to settle, they have a need to win all the time, at the expense of others.
Within this self-constructed worldview, they distinguish themselves (the deserved winner) from the losers. The egotist believes they are the center of everyone’s thoughts and critique. Always envied, always judged, the egotist responds to this self-appointed status with various behaviors of defensiveness, rashness, or inconsideration.
The Outer Symptoms of Egotism
Leaders with big egos not only affect the people they work with, but the productivity of the whole organization suffers. Because of the egotist’s disinterest in other viewpoints, they cannot work constructively with those who disagree. They can’t accept or learn from feedback, and it doesn’t take long for feedback to be stifled altogether. A distorted take on reality leads to the egotist’s overconfidence in tackling major challenges.
The effects of leaders with big egos cause great pain throughout the organization. The egotistical leader:
- Will only hear what they want to hear, creating blindness to truth. They surround themselves with “yes-men” who outwardly resonate with the leader. The real issues aren’t evaluated and thus strategies are misguided.
- Is indecisive, because they believe that action is not required as threats are downplayed or dismissed.
- Underestimates challenges due to lack of understanding. The problems grow worse and merge into higher categories of trouble.
- Takes on daunting tasks without preparation or the ability to solve them, because they see them as less threatening than they really are.
- Does not relate to the needs of the other people, and doesn’t bother to motivate, teach, or lead them. They don’t prioritize the people who do the work and engage with customers.
- Acts persecuted or rejected when people disagree or leave the organization.
- Does not reflect on personal shortcomings because it would interfere with their need to feel superior. Their blind spots go unaddressed, and eventually people stop bringing them up.
- Does not see available opportunities for the organization because of an internal focus on their own needs.
It’s not difficult to grasp that these symptoms of leadership ego eventually lead to overriding problems that can be difficult to reverse. Teamwork and loyalty are compromised. Creativity, learning, and growth are significantly limited. Opportunities and expectations are missed. Customer retention is jeopardized. Employee turnover rises and the prospects for success fall.
Taking Ground Back from Egotism
Egotism in leadership can be countered. But it takes a deliberate effort on the part of leaders to refocus and see things from a wider view. Trained coaches can be an excellent resource to guide leaders to a helpful perspective. In some cases, a leader can only make progress on becoming less egotistical through working with an experienced professional.
An effective leader requires a life of balance. Some ego tendencies are beneficial. Boldness and confidence are certainly assets in forging direction and inspiring followers. But these tendencies must be kept in check and proportioned with other important leadership attributes.
To minimize the unhealthy effects of ego, a leader must find a conscious balance between:
- Strengths and weaknesses
- Ambition and caution
- Confidence and doubt
- Foresight and hindsight
- Boldness and accountability
- Inspiration and being grounded
- Personal needs and the needs of others
A leader needs to optimize the art of self-management, where they can suppress and channel ego when needed. This takes an awareness of the danger signs. It takes an accurate self-assessment, where they can see themselves from a distance. Detaching from false assumptions and their influences is key in this, as is recognizing and resisting the temptations. It always feels good to satisfy the inner cravings of self-importance, but danger is never far away.
An important aspect of correcting egotistical tendencies is learning about emotional intelligence. Improving EQ requires a leader to properly substitute humility for ego. This is a vital skill in subduing the effects of ego. It is a difficult transition for a leader to make, but with the proper support and training, it can be done.
A key practice is to recognize the viewpoints of others. No one can see themselves objectively enough to override all their blind spots. Asking for feedback and getting help is an important weapon a leader can use to defeat egotist tendencies.
Principles That Subdue Egotism
Author Holiday makes the case for several guiding principles leaders can use in overcoming their natural self-importance attitudes. Every leader who’s caught in the egotist condition will need help trusting and applying these principles.
- The egotistical leader is good at talking big. But big talk is a front that the egotist uses to sidestep true accomplishment. Nothing brings a lofty talker down to earth quite like a serious and thoughtful plan to meet a complex goal. It takes a sober mind and a humble assessment of capabilities to pull off a victory. It’s victories, not talk, that make a leader successful.
- A leader with an ego believes that their mission is to win and succeed over others. But they need to realize the only meaningful mission in life is to pursue a purpose larger than themselves. The choice is to live by a calling rather than by what can be acquired. This takes another choice: to be selfless over selfish. A record of accomplishments is what leaders are admired for, not who they think they are. History bears this out repeatedly.
- Egotistical leaders can’t learn anything if they think they already know everything. A key to successful leadership is to agree that no one knows everything they need to know to be the best they can be. Continuous learning is the only way to succeed. The smartest leaders of all time were smart enough to know there were things they still needed to learn. The best leaders acknowledge that there are always leaders who are better. They know how to swallow pride, get feedback, admit shortcomings, and learn. Then they get busy.
- History doesn’t deceive. Egotistical leaders benefit by appreciating the historic truth that greatness starts with humble beginnings. This requires that they learn and grow without drawing attention to themselves. True success comes through serving others and providing a value people seek. This, not any self-proclaimed worth, builds one’s reputation and demand. Helping oneself is best attained by helping others. This requires a humble heart and the setting aside of ego.
Ego is a liar that distorts reality. The leader who can ignore the tempting thoughts and images that have been distorting their perspectives to make them feel important will have the best chance of shaking their egotistical ways. They need a clearer, more honest picture of what’s happening around them. That’s best done through other points of view.
Leaders will see their people rally behind them if they can adopt these principles, reframe their mindsets and habits, and earn the trust needed to effectively prosper their people and their organizations.