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Where Ego, I Go

17 June 2019, by Michael O'Leary

Managing risk to organisation performance from egocentric leaders.

Has there ever been a moment in history when unabashed and untethered ego has been so nakedly on show? In the US, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, describes ego as President Trump’s exclusive motivation. Rolling Stone magazine describes Trump’s ego as a clear risk to national security. Even Fox News is beginning to ask questions about its role in building up and salving the President’s ego, particularly through their onesided love-in, Fox and Friends. 

In the UK, whatever your politics, you have a wide choice of ego maniacal players to choose from. In fact, so prevalent are MP’s who are happy to spray non-factual quotes and squander political and economic capital in the interest of self-promotion, that even the pretence of integrity or authenticity has long disappeared.  

Ego. We all have one, it travels with us wherever we go. Shayne Hughes, co-author of Ego Free Leadership, defines ego as a series of sub-conscious drivers and responses to beliefs and fears about our self-worth. As we fail to recognise ego-driven responses to perceived ego threats, we create a divisiveness at a time we most need to collaborate. He explains that excessive ego correlates with low confidence rather than with high competency. Leaders with confidence are perfectly comfortable being vulnerable, imperfect or inadequate at times and can still show up in a constructive and effective manner. Egocentric leaders are not and do not. 

All leaders have strong egos, as egos stimulate a need to grow, expand and challenge. Leadership is not an easy ride and without the self-protective mechanisms that ego provides, few would step into the leadership ring. However, the damage inflicted in organisations by leaders with unchecked or uncontrolled egos can be seismic. Egotists are often disconnected to organisation norms. Their “expert power” or past achievements are regarded as all that is necessary to propel them forward.  They naively see themselves as superior to others and generally lack empathy. In their World view, they already know everything there is to know and therefore do not operate with a learning mindset. Other people’s opinions are at best tolerated, but rarely assimilated.  

In Ego Is The Enemy, author Ryan Holiday describes an out of control ego as delivering great pain for an organisation (or country!), as widespread productivity suffers. Given their disinterest in the views of others, egocentric leaders surround themselves with “yes men or women”, so issues are not effectively analysed and solutions are generally misguided as a result. Many of these challenges are grossly underestimated through this  lack of understanding and consequently they degenerate further.  
 
The potential disaster for talent management, customer relationship management and operational excellence from excessive egotism is apparent, however it can be addressed by recalibrating the leader’s balance on eight levels:  
 
1. Their need for success with the calculation of risk 

2.  Self-confidence with humility 

3. The ability to consider intended/unintended future consequences with objective evaluation of past experiences  

4. Their personal drivers with the impact of these on the related needs of others 

5. Being outspoken with active listening 

6. Perception of opportunity with ownership for outcomes 

7. Blue sky thinking with grounding anchors  

8. Being fearless with showing fairness 
 
In our understanding of ego management, it is important to remember the role of culture, both in the protection of organisation culture and how culture can exacerbate the growth of individualism, if ego’s are allowed to go unchecked. We have all seen how the fatuous popularity seeking slogans the above politicians throw out are often blindly accepted by a majority of their electorates, leading to divisiveness and deterioration.  This can be said of organisations too.  

Culture is eroded, if fear of loss of performance or expertise, overrides the need for highly egotistical leaders to be challenged over their behaviour by the organisation. It might be argued that organisation passivity facilitates the growth of superegos. That the organisation therefore is truly at fault for the resulting deterioration in standards and performance. 

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