Why ‘ego’ is the enemy of leadership

Why ‘ego’ is the enemy of leadership

💪 Power

Ryan Holiday’s ‘Ego is the enemy’ is one of those books that I have been drawn towards without wanting to admit it to myself or others. It was more comfortable believing that I do not have an ‘ego’. This changed after reading the book.

To be clear: having an ego is not necessarily being egotistic. We can care about others, but still have an ego. Having an ego is more about relating whatever happens first and foremost to oneself. An ‘egoic’ reaction is one when people are

"thinking consciously about what they want, what they are doing, who they are, what other people think about them, and how things are going for them. In these situations, people are being egoic; they are highly self-absorbed, and their reactions are all about them" (Mark Leary, Psychology Today)  

Good leadership requires having one’s ego in check, because:

Ego gets in the way of true listening

A strong, unchecked ego relates everything that someone says to oneself: ‘I don’t agree with them’, ‘I had a very similar experience that I am going to share when they have stopped talking’, ‘I know how to solve their problem’, ‘what shall I say next?’, ‘what if they notice that I haven’t listened to them?’ Most of the attention is on oneself, not the other.

True listening is crucial for effective leadership to

  • understand what is really going on (also by ‘listening’ for what is not being said),
  • building rapport in a team,
  • create the conditions for what Nancy Kline calls a ‘Thinking Environment’ – where through listening, we give space for people to think for themselves and thereby come up with novel ideas.

Ego gets in the way of connection

We usually present a persona to the world, a mask that is meant to represent (the best sides of) ourselves. Our ego may have our best interests at heart, but it disconnects us from others. We let go of that mask when with loved-ones and good friends. And then we wonder how to build relationships at work, with clients, with our boss, with voters. What if building relationships at work was not fundamentally different from building relationships with friends & family?

Leaders who can connect with others remind us

  • that it is OK to show who we are, to be vulnerable, and tap into the power of vulnerability
  • of our humanity: beneath our titles and corporate/party affiliations, we are human beings with similar struggles and hopes – a critical element in any vision of the future

Ego gets in the way of taking ownership

Bad leaders blame everything and everyone else, never themselves. Their ego takes the easy way out, not trusting them to be able to handle the adversity that can come from taking ownership.

Taking ownership marks good leadership because it

  • gets things done by accepting responsibility instead of wasting time looking around
  • it instils a culture of continuous learning where people are allowed to make mistakes in the process of learning

It’s not so much about whether we have an ego or not, but about being aware when it gets in the way of true listening, connecting and taking ownership.