The Myth of the "No Ego" Leaderby Gregory Stebbins, EdD

Recently, there has been much discussion and even a TED talk around leadership with no ego. This has led some to believe that a leader should dissolve his or her ego. Perhaps there is some misunderstanding of what the ego is and why it is useful as a leadership tool.

Our ego is the self identity our mind constructs from what we experience, think or believe about ourselves. Ego carries out life’s directive to survive by adapting to adverse environmental or organizational conditions. Senior leaders often have large egos; it’s what helped them survive the trip to the top of their organization.

Learning involves having the capacity for memory. Our memory records which experiences support life and those that don’t. As long as we have a mind holding on to even one memory of our previous experiences, it’s an illusion to think we can dissolve our ego.

Ego is neither good nor bad. It is only a vehicle we use to navigate life. If we use a car and always drive around on the same roads, we’ll know nothing but that car and those roads. We do have the freedom to stop, get out of our car and explore other paths. We can also use a different kind of vehicle, say a boat or plane to navigate our life.

Different people have different vehicles; some are large, some are small and they come in many different designs, colors and shapes. Occasionally we may see a leader arrive in a well-armored tank. Nothing can penetrate the tank and the leader is effectively protected from any organizational reality except his own.

Ego issues arise when we become attached to a certain vehicle and pronounce our vehicle as the only correct way. Often this message is emphasized with great authority. Our ego’s desire is to construct, enhance, maintain and protect positive self-images and have others buy into those images. This approach can extinguish relationships, curtail collaboration and obstruct organizational prosperity.

One way this plays out is our desire to be the only leader. Issues arise when the ego is so prominent that it precludes even the idea of others sharing in leadership roles within the organization. While there was a time when this approach to organizational leadership was successful, that time has passed. The real tragedy is the suffering within the organization. The organizational culture moves from being alive to dreary, and ultimately it decays.

Yet, as leaders with egos balanced with compassion, we are capable of genuine caring about the well-being of others. We can be generous, and supportive of others, without fear for what this means for our self-image. We see ourselves as part of a larger whole. We understand our actions have consequences for others and repercussions for the entire organization.

We can provide support to others, act authentically and disclose our fears and weaknesses to build bonds of trust in our team relationships. Our responsiveness to others within the organization improves collective bonds and escalates the likelihood that we will receive reciprocal support.

Large ego individuals, who lead from a vision of inclusiveness, can be highly motivating. Employees want to experience the boosts to self-esteem and the emotional high of praise, recognition, and feelings of success. They also want to avoid the loss of self-esteem and intensely negative emotions that can accompany criticism, failure, rejection and feelings of inadequacy or inferiority.

A large ego leader’s strength permeates the entire organization. Using her large ego with supportive positive communication like, “It’s really nice to be here with you,” or “I’m glad we’re working together,” lifts people within the organization.

As we become more aware of how to use compassion, for others and ourselves, our ego can effectively serve us by ensuring we have the energy and drive to accomplish our organizational vision.

Our ego is a fantastic tool and a poor master.


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About the Author:

Dr. Stebbins has over three decades of experience coaching emerging and senior leaders in being more people savvy. A leader’s awareness, commitment, integrity and authenticity are directly shaped by their internal landscape (the habits of thought, emotion, imagination and action).