“Ego is the wicked sister of success”
I love this quote and Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. It’s a great read, and when I started the audiobook, I had several leaders come to mind, “yeah, [blank] needs to hear this; this is gold and will change their lives and make everyone else’s life better as well!” Not long into the book, however, I had to press pause; I let out an expletive and thought, “classic egocentric rookie mistake: thinking the problem is with others, and I’m all good with this”. I was quickly reminded of my leadership journey spanning nearly 30 years, starting in the last few years of my teens, and realized that managing ego had been a constant battle, round by round, punch by punch, battle till knockout fight club. Some of the memories that came flooding back included:
Yelling at a colleague in front of a group of team members, acting like a fool.
Making a decision out of authority, even though it wasn’t the best idea, I just wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.
Making another decision purely because I thought it would make me look cool and impress others
I manipulated a situation so that my team won - no one got hurt, but it wasn’t right.
This is meant to be a short read, so I’ll stop with the examples, but it went on and on and on. Those that know me or have been led by me could probably write their own chapters to add to the list above but let’s say that it’s been a ride! Although it’s something I have been conscious of, and I’m hoping I’m up on points at this stage of my life, this battle with ego doesn’t end after 12 rounds; it ends at death.
There are many strategies for managing ego, but here are Five Things that I recommend.
1. Always be a student
If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room, or you’re full of ego. All the true greats recognize that they can learn from everyone and everything, and they never stop pursuing learning. It’s a quiet, subtle superpower, escaping from what is known to find the unknown and devouring it in understanding, reflection, and ultimately in changed practice. Great leaders understand what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “every man I meet is my master at some point, and in that, I learn of him.”
A significant part of the leadership training content I have developed over the years has come from watching or experiencing poor leadership and learning from some of the best. We can learn from everyone, but we have to be intentional about it. Our own mistakes and failings should also be a source of learning. I know I’ve made some doozies along the way, but leadership isn’t about knowing everything; it’s about learning from everything.
The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. I love John Wheeler’s quote, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” We never reach a point where we can think that we’ve made it; we are the expert. As soon as we do, a slow death is imminent. I have found that what I discovered and learned twenty years ago, whilst profound and life-changing, has had twenty years of discoveries and new learning built on it since.
“Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid. It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding until eventually, it’s too late to change course.”
Ego lures us into thinking that we know all or know enough, so egotism's antithesis is the constant endeavor to learn more and adapt to that new learning. I’ve been helping companies develop strategic plans for over twenty years. My ego tells me that I’m “all over it”, but the reality is that strategic thinking and planning methodology has significantly changed over the years and if I get stuck thinking that what worked in the late 90s and early 2000s is going to work today than I’m at risk of becoming irrelevant and the companies I serve risk becoming obsolete.
Regular reading - Leaders are readers is true, but it’s more than just reading; learning requires changed behavior. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits four times and created an action plan to go with it that has reinforced what I learned years ago into daily practice today. I’m pretty sure it was the only book I read that year, intentionally.
Relationships - Find people that excel in an area you don’t and buy them a coffee or lunch and ask questions, share your thoughts and listen. These could be mentors, colleagues, emerging leaders, or industry experts. Think of people outside your sandbox.
Training courses or formal training - When was the last time you signed up for a course or program for professional development? You might know 80% of the material already, but the 20% can be pure goodness, and the fact that you are stopping to learn intentionally may cause your genius juices to flow.
Reflection - Stop, breathe, reflect and learn. One of our most untapped resources is our ability to think. We are so busy doing that learning opportunities are passed every day. Whether it is part of your end of day procedure or morning routine, reflect on your doing and look for opportunities to improve. There is a leader that I know, a great leader actually, who carries around a small notebook in their jacket pocket and whenever they come across something they need to think about later or something they need to do, out comes the small pad and pen, the thought or action is captured, and they can return to it when they have time.
Over the years, I have slowly built up the following habits: I try to read every day - usually a chapter; usually before the family, emails, and sun get up; reflect on the reading; jot down some thoughts or actions; and, come back to it the next day. I endeavor to meet with someone monthly, at a minimum, to ask questions or unpack an idea or learning. I enroll in at least one course, experiential learning opportunity, or development program each year, and I schedule a time to sit in my thoughts and reflect each morning. It doesn’t always happen, but the habit is there. Thanks for the learning Atomic Habits!
2. Commit to the service of others
There’s no better way to get our attention off ourselves than by channeling our energy toward others. If ego is about making ourselves look good, then the antithesis of this is making others look good. Give credit to others, acknowledge their effort, brag about them, and go out of your way to focus on the betterment of your team.
Look for your happiness in creating happiness for others. Be generous. Give of yourself and in doing so you take the fuel out of ego. As a leader, your success should be found in the success of others.
3. Listen more than you talk
Have you ever been in a meeting and you’re discussing an issue, and you know the other person isn’t really listening; they are just thinking about what they will say next? Don’t be that person. One leader comes to mind who does this repeatedly, and not only are they not listening; when they respond, they say what they want to say and then take the conversation in a completely different direction. Crazy right? Well, we need to be mindful of ourselves.
Questions to think about:
Am I listening to understand or listening to respond?
Am I genuinely trying to understand what the other person is saying?
How am I demonstrating active listening by summarising what the person may be trying to say, even though I may struggle to understand their point initially?
How is my body language? Do I appear interested or look like I have disappeared into what’s on the menu for lunch?
Am I demonstrating empathy?
Am I asking clarifying questions?
Am I acknowledging how the person may be feeling or thinking, or am I trying to delegitimize
Am I open-minded or closed to suggestions or feedback?
Do I give myself permission to digest the information, or do I think I need to jump right back in with whatever is in my head?
Do I stick to the agenda or move on to something I’m interested in?
Do I need to schedule more time to come back and revisit the topic of conversation?
Have I clearly articulated my own thoughts on the back of this?
Have I added real value to the conversation or just bombarded my way to get what I want?
Is the other person going to be better off due to how I’ve acted?
These are all good questions to think about.
4. Keep a scorecard
“I never look back, except to find out about mistakes… I only see danger in thinking back about things you are proud of.”
It is such an easy trap to live in a world of comparisons. Comparing ourselves to others is a quick way to find yourself depressed or full of ego. The only comparison that matters is between you and the absolute best you’re capable of. You’re winning when you’re better than you were last week, last month, last year. There’s a great quote by Ryan Holiday, “Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best version of themselves.”
Keep a scoreboard on your ego but make it against the absolute best you are capable of. Watch ego shriek in pain as you reflect on all the learning, all the betterment, all the development ahead. Don’t give it oxygen by thinking about the accomplishments of the past, focus on the adventure ahead and all that you still need to do to move forwards. It’s all about inches gained on that back of reflection that makes us win.
5. Be accountable
When was the last time you had someone come to you and say, “Can I give you some feedback?” And it’s not positive. They go on to call you out for some behavior that was inappropriate and fuelled by ego. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen often, but we should be grateful for it when it does. Ego’s craftiness is in its ability to subtly work in the background, making it nearly invisible to ourselves but blatantly obvious to others. Being accountable for what we think, say, and do is an excellent weapon that a leader can have in their arsenal.
I remember a CEO friend of mine, Steve Brown, a mentor, asking me out for lunch when I was in my early 20s. He, and his wife Barb, have always been a source of great encouragement, and catching up for lunch, well, that was going to be a treat, so I thought. Sigh. It started great, and then the real point of the lunch became clear. The example I shared above of yelling at a colleague in front of an audience, well, Steve happened to get a front-row seat to it. After some pleasant introductions, he proceeded to give it to me, double-barreled, about how inappropriate my behavior was and that it made me look like a fool. I can’t remember the word ego being used exactly, but boy, it was in bold and underlined. Looking back, I’m so grateful for that accountability, although it felt like hell in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and I had to make it right, which I proceeded to do. Ego’s ultimate plan was blindsided by accountability although the caesar salad didn’t quite taste right that day.
Who holds you accountable? Who have you given sincere permission to, to challenge your thinking and behavior? If you haven’t had that, not so delightful experience of having your ego called out or challenged, either you’re a saint and have mastered your ego, or you haven’t met that special somebody yet.
Don’t get in the way of all you could be. Commit to the battle of lifelong ego management. It’s a journey, and remember - ego is the enemy and the wicked sister of success.