A lack of self-awareness combined with an overactive ego can trip up even the best executive.
When leaders get caught up in their ego, they erode their effectiveness because the combination of false pride and self-doubt created by an overactive ego gives them a distorted image of their own importance. When that happens, leaders see themselves as the center of the universe and they put their own agenda, safety, status and gratification ahead of those affected by their thoughts and actions.
An out-of-balance ego doesn’t feel dramatically different from an in-balance ego. Many leaders may not even notice it at first — though other people will — because ego takes a leader’s strength and subtly changes it into a close counterfeit. An overactive ego puts a self-serving spin on things people originally appreciated about the leader. A leader who is confident becomes arrogant, one with charisma becomes melodramatic, one who is pioneering becomes obsessive, and one who is persistent becomes delusional.
From Fear to False Pride
Leaders with an overactive ego find themselves unable to center. Instead they are constantly moving from a sense of inadequacy to an overinflated sense of their own importance. In his book “Ego Check,” Mathew Hayward identifies two sources of excessive pride.
First, leaders tie their sense of self-worth to extrinsic motivators such as impressing others and gaining power vs. intrinsic motivators such as merit and actual processes.
Second, leaders base their sense of self on interpretations of data that reinforce their opinions, ideas and suggested courses of action instead of taking an objective look at things.
Hayward wrote that while it is important for leaders to understand and be concerned with how others perceive them, it can be taken too far if it gives others control over the leader’s sense of self. Combine that with a lack of accurate and objective information and, over time, a leader can become inauthentic, rudderless and self-destructive.
In his book “Leading at a Higher Level,” business author Ken Blanchard explains that when leaders’ sense of self-worth is tied up in their achievements and the perceptions of others, their self-worth is up for grabs on a daily basis. (Editor’s note: This article’s author works for Blanchard’s company).
Then it becomes increasingly difficult for a leader to maintain a healthy and centered self-determined image. Since performance varies from day to day, leaders shift back and forth between feelings of fear and anxiety, or hubris and false pride.
“When leaders are addicted to either ego affliction, it erodes their effectiveness,” Blanchard said. “Leaders dominated by false pride are often called ‘controllers.’ Even when they don’t know what they are doing, they have a high need for power and control. Even when it’s clear to everyone that they are wrong, they keep on insisting they are right.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the fear-driven leaders. Blanchard said these individuals are often characterized as “do-nothing bosses.” They’re described as “never around, always avoiding conflict and not very helpful.” “Their fear of making a mistake and feelings of inadequacy keep them from taking action — even when they should,” he said.
Four Warning Signs
In their book “Egonomics,” authors David Marcum and Steven Smith identify four warning signs that an overactive ego might be undermining an executive’s career.
- Seeking acceptance: A leader becomes overly concerned with what others think. This keeps leaders from being true to themselves. These leaders tend to play it safe, swim with the current and restate others’ ideas instead of putting forth their own.
- Showcasing brilliance: Leaders go beyond sharing good ideas to making their brilliance the center of attention. When showcasing is allowed or encouraged, the casualty is collective wisdom. Paradoxically, the more a leader showcases his or her brilliance, the less likely people are to listen.
- Being comparative: Instead of focusing on being their own personal best, these leaders find themselves fixated on comparing themselves to others. Excessive comparison turns colleagues into competitors, and competitors are not effective collaborators. Comparing strengths to weaknesses leads to excessive self-confidence or feelings of inadequacy.
- Being defensive: Instead of defending an idea, these leaders find themselves defending their positions as if they were defending themselves personally. Leaders focus on proving their cases and deflecting alternative points of view. These leaders resist feedback, brush off mistakes and discussions become superficial.
Because ego acts subtly and a healthy ego is necessary for anyone who aspires to leadership, the goal is not to remove ego from the equation, but to keep it in balance. Marcum and Smith recommend that leaders develop their humility, curiosity and veracity. The goal is to achieve and maintain an intelligent self-respect and genuine confidence. Marcum and Smith’s advice is echoed throughout the published research on ego and leader effectiveness. Here are some of the key practices for leaders looking to maintain their effectiveness.
Focus on something bigger than yourself. In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins identifies a special type of leader who builds enduring greatness through a combination of personal humility and professional will. Collins describes this type of leader as a Level 5. Of special note to all leaders is the underlying principle that Collins sets forward — that leaders at all levels need to put organizational, department or team goals ahead of their personal agenda. In addition to humility and fierce resolve, leaders should focus on the pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulating the group to high performance standards; organizing people and resources toward the pursuit of predetermined objectives; contributing to the achievement of group objectives; working effectively with others in a group setting; and making contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.
Build authentic pride. Hayward said for many leaders authentic pride comes from doing good work well. But, when a leader’s pride is dependent on extrinsic rewards or the approval of others, it can easily become overweening pride and a fast-track toward hubris and an ego problem. His recommendations? One, be understated about sharing successes with colleagues. Two, ensure decisions are motivated by business rather than personal objectives. Three, examine the authenticity of decisions and behaviors. Four, avoid spending excessive time on impression management rather than getting on with the job.
Ask questions and seek out feedback. Hayward said leaders often kid themselves about situations because they fail to see, seek, share and use full and balanced feedback to gain a more grounded assessment. Leaders need accurate, pertinent, timely and clear feedback, whether positive or negative, to ground their knowledge about what’s going on around them.
Collins said one of the telltale signs a team is on the way down is if it has leaders who have a very low questions-to-statement ratio, avoiding critical input or allowing sloppy reasoning and unsupported opinions.
Hayward recommends that before leaders make any big decision, they ask themselves three questions: “Am I getting the right input into this decision? Do I have someone who I can trust to tell me when I’m wrong? Am I the best person to be making this call?”
Practice shining the spotlight on others. Blanchard has often said that ego stands for “edging good out.” Leaders need to avoid having an overactive ego limit their effectiveness. Keep things in perspective for best results. “People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less,” he said. “You finally become an adult when you realize that life is about what you give rather than what you get.”
Collins tells a story in “Good to Great” that illustrates this difference. When things are going well for self-serving leaders, they look in the mirror, beat their chests and tell themselves how good they are. When things go wrong, they look out the window and blame everyone else.
On the other hand, when things go well for leaders focused on showcasing others’ brilliance, they look out the window and give everybody else the credit. When things go wrong, these servant leaders look in the mirror and ask questions like, “What could I have done differently that would have allowed these people to be as great as they could be?”
“At senior levels, it’s easy to blame others: ‘The organization doesn’t get it, the team didn’t execute,’ or even, ‘The economy didn’t behave.’ Excessive pride prevents leaders from seeing what they’re doing wrong so they end up compounding their mistakes,” Hayward said.
Abraham Lincoln once noted that, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Leadership is a high calling. It requires a high level of confidence, skill and ability to influence the actions of others. Ego plays a positive role in this as long as it is channeled in a way that is centered, inspiring and inclusive.
With a little bit of vigilance and an understanding of the four overactive ego warning signs, leaders can head off trouble before it erodes their effectiveness. Leaders with an accurate perception of self, who remain open to feedback and who maintain a commitment to something larger than their personal self interests can help others do the same.
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