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Ego or Leadership?

Sigmund Freud popularized the concept of “ego” as one of three components of our personality structure (along with id and superego).  Ego is generally thought of as the “manager” part of our self – the part that sorts through reality and makes conscious decisions.  Ego also defines our identity – how we see ourselves and how others see us.   Aside from the psychological origins of the term, when describing others, most people refer to ego as a person’s sense of self – their self-esteem, or self-importance.  So, when someone says “That guy has an ego,” or, “that guy has a big ego,” they mean the person being described has an inflated sense of themselves.

Is ego (or even a big ego) a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Leaders have to have confidence – a strong sense of self, in order to inspire others and get others to follow them.  The issue is whether you have a healthy ego.  An unhealthy ego is characterized by counterproductive behaviors.  Unhealthy egos usually are a combination of false pride and actual insecurity.  This results in not listening, not collaborating, bullying, obsessing about results, acting emotionally not rationally, and generally being a pain to those around you!

People with a healthy ego have an objective awareness of themselves – they know their own limitations, flaws and quirks and how to take care of themselves physically and emotionally. They can consider alternatives and listen to others.  They care about others (not just themselves), want the best for people around them, and enjoy the successes of others. They have healthy habits and enjoy being healthy, like going out on jogs with their kids on their strollers from babystrollercenter.com or even eating healthy too. They are confident, but appropriately so – balanced with humility.  A leader with a healthy ego admits mistakes and learns from mistakes.  In fact, leaders with healthy egos are very committed to learning – they don’t think they already know everything.

There have been many good books written on this subject.  What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith describes the many behaviors that can hold leaders back.  Many of these obstacles are related to ego problems.  A more recent book, Ego vs. EQ by Jen Shirkani describes 8 ego traps that can hold people back, and shows how good emotional intelligence (EQ) is the pathway to overcoming the traps.  EQ is essentially equivalent to a healthy ego.  Two of the 8 traps that Jen identifies include erroneously assuming that brilliance and technical excellence equate to leadership (they don’t), and that unhealthy ego breeds control freaks who won’t let go (it does).

In an interview given when her book was released, Jen said that the best ways for a leader to keep ego from getting in the way are good self-awareness, being grounded, listening to honest feedback, and managing impulses.  We agree.

There are a lot of narcissists in leadership.  We’ve all encountered them, and they are unlikely to change.  But even psychologically healthy people can get carried away with power and take their behavior to extremes – artificial highs and lows.
Good leaders take the time to step back and observe themselves, ask others for feedback, and make sure they stay on track with a healthy ego, reflected in how they behave in the workforce.  And, a healthy ego makes for a happier, healthier leader!