The Damnable Ego

We all tell ourselves a story about who we are and who we are meant to be.  We’ve been doing this since early childhood.  That story defines our ego.

Ego is the force that urges us persistently to play the role we have devised for ourselves in the world, in our families, and in our businesses.

Talk about the proverbial double-edged sword …

I am more and more concerned about the role that the persistence of ego plays in bad leadership, on a local and global scale.

Most of us think of ego as something that drives (on the one hand) self-confidence and healthy ambition and (on the other) arrogance, harsh judgment, and all sorts of bad behavior, notably in high-profile people.  But in fact we all have powerful egos — and these egos drive our behavior in ways that are difficult to recognize.

Our ego’s voice tends to be the voice we listen to most urgently, even when that voice is speaking falsehoods and giving bad advice.  Part of the maturing process is recognizing when the ego wants its way—and to listen to it with an ear attuned to a larger perspective, an ear that is sensitive to what the ego wants but also can filter out that voice when it’s not useful.

Since the ego’s purpose is self-preservation, its job is to resist change, because all change is threatening.  But leaders swim in change.  This egoic resistance to change can defeat the leader.  How?

  • Ego drives us to rest on past successes and then to apply the past to the present and future — even when it’s not relevant.
  • Ego causes us to be overly sensitive to criticism. The ego never wants to be wrong and will often attack either the self or others for being critical.
  • Ego causes us to see change and new directions as attacks on our “old self” rather than as the way to develop and new, better self.
  • Ego tends to shut down discussion. The ego only wants to hear what feeds its “story” about the way things should be.
  • Ego opens us to “cognitive dissonance” – which leads us to ignore facts that are incongruous with the ego’s needs and desires.
  • Ego wants to live forever in its own mythology and tribal legends. Thus ego –both individual and collective ego — can keep families, companies, and whole societies from achieving their potential.  Sometimes when we wave the flag and plaster up the banners praising ourselves, we are allowing our ego to hide us from the difficult truths of our individual and collective lives.

There is such a thing as a “healthy” ego. We need to have confidence in ourselves and belief in our ability to do great things in this world. But where we go wrong is when we read from the ego’s self-serving script when we should be intelligently, reflectively, and objectively writing a new one – helping ourselves, our families, our organizations, and our global community evolve.

YOUR PATH FORWARD:

  • Imagine how you might act into every situation if you were truly able to “check your ego at the door” in service of a higher perspective (for example, our organization’s mission, or the health of the planet).
  • Next time you face criticism, listen carefully as your ego throws a temper tantrum.  Then give it a time-out to calm down.
  • Ask yourself, “What are my sacred cows?  In what ways am I holding my organization back because I’m not truly willing to question everything we do without consulting my ego first?”

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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