Three ways leaders can overcome ego

( ... If that applies to you)

In response to a recent question about your most pressing leadership challenge for 2017 two independent responses stood out. One person said, “to overcome ego.” Another wrote: “Self-reflection is what leaders need most in order to be effective. But sadly, most of them are prisoners of their own arrogance.” 

Can you imagine what would happen if leaders increased self-awareness and managed ego more effectively — or grew in humility?

Few people want to admit they may be arrogant or egotistical, usually because they lack the necessary self-awareness to do so. Besides, many people argue that a healthy dose of pride and ambition is necessary if you want to be a leader. However, most of us realise that true leaders — the best leaders — are those who humbly admit the limits of their knowledge and ability, who recognise there is often a better way of doing things than how they have always been done, and who have a sense of responsibility and service toward others. Jim Collins highlighted this in his seminal work Good to Great.

At what point does healthy, and necessary, self-confidence morph into over-inflated ego? 

A self-centred egotistical person indicates a lack of humility. This is dangerous and damaging in a CEO because they look first to themselves and secondly to others, often using people as a means to satisfy their own desires. These kind of leaders enhance their standing by standing on others.

Have you ever worked for a CEO who makes him or herself the centre of attention, who takes credit for every success and absorbs all the emotional energy when they enter a room? How different this is to the kind of impact attributed to Nelson Mandela. Many people repeated stories of how his very presence upon entering a room inspired everyone to become the best they could be.

How do you keep your ego in check and cultivate this kind of presence?

in moments of reflection we become more aware of our strengths and limitations, and the value of others around us

Leaders tend to have a sense of urgency and competition. They can be accused of lacking empathy and being workaholics simply because of the size and scale of their role and responsibilities. You may not be egotistical, but the sheer demands of your role means sometimes you appear to be self-centred and self-interested.

Here are three ways I’ve found that leaders can remain other-centred, manage their egos and step up their leadership. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. 

Budget Time

Do you ‘budget’ your time as strictly as you track your company’s finances? In an ‘always on’ society where you are wired in and continually connected, our devices have not created more leisure but rather greater attachment to work. Being constantly on call and digitally present can help us over-estimate our own importance. It turns out however that we are more effective when we allocate our time for specific projects, answer emails only during scheduled times, and take breaks from technology during meals, for example. It’s good to allocate time for reflection because if you do not, then it simply will not happen. And it is in moments of reflection that we become more aware of our strengths and limitations, and the value of others around us.

Practice Empathy

A very senior leader once told me an appalling story. One of her colleagues on the executive team failed to arrive for a scheduled meeting — because he was in hospital having a broken arm fixed. The firm immediately arranged teleconferencing facilities for the radiology department so the executive could patch into the meeting while getting patched up. Does anyone believe business is so important that we can justify treating a person this way? A little empathy and understanding goes a long way, and helps us see the importance of others and their needs, rather than think our agenda outweighs human beings. 

Reflect on ‘eulogy virtues’

Are you committed to a task that will take more than a lifetime to fulfil?

David Brooks observes we live in a culture that celebrates ‘resume virtues’ (strengths that sound good to a recruiter) over ‘eulogy virtues’ (character habits that sound good in a eulogy). Many people tend to focus on their strengths, which is how you build resume virtues. However, eulogy virtues are more meaningful. They signal a depth of character we all truly long to cultivate. Brooks realises it’s counterintuitive but recommends you focus on your weaknesses instead of strengths to cultivate eulogy virtues. Depth and breadth of character is built by wrestling with your ‘demons’ and overcoming your limitations.

Writing your own obituary can be a power reflective exercise. What do you want people to say at your funeral? If you continue on your current trajectory is that what they will be saying? There are many other ways to temper an inflated sense of self-importance (e.g. get some honest feedback from peers and colleagues).

Egotistical leaders are almost always self-centred, and have a dehumanising impact on others. Human-centred leaders on the other hand often demonstrate the humility that comes from putting others at the centre of their world.

Think of the outstanding leaders you know. What is it about their leadership impact? What are the decisive factors that makes the difference? What is it about them? Have they put their ego aside?