Why leaders should avoid the ego trap

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Who wouldn’t like to receive a great compliment on what you are doing and have your ego stroked? Perhaps it is in our nature to be liked or avoid being disliked. It is also easy for us to focus on our own self-interest in terms of bigger success, profits, or gains that might pad our ego. However, what many leaders—in the private and public sectors alike—do not realize is that the same ego can make them ineffective or worse, get them into trouble. 

In fact, if you want to be an effective leader, you have to let go of your ego. Being a leader is not about you; it is all about the people you guide as a leader.

Kenneth Rhee

This sounds like a simple proposition. However, it is easier said than done. Look at all the corruption or abuse-of-power cases throughout our history. Recent examples in corporate America range from Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron to Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, and Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals. This pattern also happens in government, when politicians become more interested in reelection than doing the right thing or being morally courageous. 

Beyond the egregious examples described above, one’s ego can get in the way of leaders being effective in situations they face every day. Ego-driven leaders fail to understand that:

■ It is not important that your idea is the best idea in the room, or if it is chosen during a meeting. In fact, your idea might not be the best one. It is in your best interest to solicit every possible idea and pick the best idea from the group.

■ One needs to admit one’s mistakes. Definitely do not go an extra mile to defend or make excuses for the mistake you made.

■ Effective leaders do not claim credit for successes or blame others for failures. It is so easy to do both, but the second is the worse of the two offenses.

Leading without ego

How can leaders avoid ego-driven behaviors? 

The first step is to increase one’s self-awareness. Our reptilian and limbic brains, which are the most ancient parts of our brain, are designed for survival and self-protection. Our ancestors had to be selfish and self-protective in order to survive in harsh environmental conditions. The parts of our brain that help us to survive and sustain the human race also make us more competitive and selfish (contributing to building up our ego). The key issue is that these parts of our brain tend to operate automatically. When we are under threat or in danger, they help us to survive since we can react quickly and without hesitation. So, the only way we can avoid this automatic response is for us to recognize our tendencies and counteract them. 

Second is the helper mindset. Here I am painstakingly avoiding the word “serve.” The concept of servant leadership has been around for a while, and it is a great concept, but unfortunately, the word serve derives from Latin meaning slavery. Perhaps our aversion to the notion of servant leaders comes from this word origin and the belief that leaders are supposed to lead, not serve. I believe we don’t really need an extra word in front of leadership if this notion of helper mindset is embedded into leadership anyway. I hope we arrive at a day when someone says leadership, all these prefixes are already incorporated into the concept. In other words, leaders will be ethical, transformational, servant, and authentic.   

Third, increase empathy and caring. It is hard to be selfish or narcissistic if you consistently demonstrate empathy and caring. How can you think of your well-being when you know that others might be suffering from your actions or your organization’s actions? If you move beyond just caring about yourself to caring for others, then you might put other people’s interests ahead of yours. 

Fourth and final is greater purpose. Rather than pursuing a goal or objective that is self-serving or focused on a few, if you focus on achieving something that is for the greater common good, you are more likely to avoid the ego trap.  Mencius, one of the famous Chinese philosophers, once advised King Hui not to think of his own profit since that encourages his officers and people to ask the same of themselves—how can I profit myself? He recommended that King Hui speak only of doing the right things for people, since everyone would follow the same path as his.

In his new book, “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek makes a distinction between finite leaders and infinite leaders. Finite leaders tend to be more focused on short-term, selfish gain whereas infinite leaders focus on long-term, common good. One of the deans of a business school I am familiar with responded to the question posed by some students as to why he wanted to be a dean by stating that the reason is that he wanted to be one. That is the most selfish response I have heard, and that dean turned out to be one who could not check his ego at the gate. 

If you put these four ideas into practice, you will minimize the risk of your ego getting in the way of your effectiveness as a leader.

I have often asked as a corollary to the ego question: How can leaders be more ethical? Many business schools offer courses in ethics and have students take the courses hoping that they will somehow become more ethical. I am not sure that is working. If we create leaders who are not egotistical and narcissistic, but instead, who care about people with whom they work and serve, then we will have more ethical leaders. Perhaps that is what we should be teaching our students—to become more empathetic and caring! As Mr. Spock, a famous fictional character in the Star Trek franchise, once said: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or a few.” If every leader follows such a path, I doubt that we will have many unethical leaders in the future. 

Ego has no place in leadership. When you enter the realm of leadership, you need to check your ego at the gate. Heed the words of Lao Tse, another wise Chinese philosopher: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Kenneth Rhee is the dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Nazareth College.

4 thoughts on “Why leaders should avoid the ego trap

  1. Mr. Rhee’s sage advice should be stressed in an academic setting for developing minds to absorb and act upon. The challenge is maintaining an ego limited approach when entrenched in a corporate culture that doesn’t support a less ego driven leader. Senior leaders tend to pick people like themselves when choosing future leaders. On top of that our wider culture tends to elevate popular and political figures with enlarged sense of self, hence “internet influencers.” Ethical and ego limited leaders do stand out when they successfully come to our attention, but they are very few and far between.

  2. I believe the timing of this could not be more appropriate in light of the action currently being considered by the majority party of the Monroe County Legislature. They can spin their action any way they want, but the fact is that ego is the one and only reason for pursuing a Resolution limiting the authority of the newly elected County Executive to put together a team and begin working toward his vision for improved County government. The lack of integrity on the part of each member of the legislature who accepts and approves this Resolution is palpable.

  3. Great article. We must tame our egos in our personal lives too. I’d greatly appreciate hearing more from Prof Rhee on tactics we can use in our professional lives to ensure our egos are in check and support others too. Thank you for this article!

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