Powered by Ego

Sun_HeadingWhen I was growing up, I was taught that ego was bad. I was taught that egotism demonstrated anti-social and heartless behaviors that were to be eschewed. I was taught that most of the evil in the world was due to the work of ego, and that nothing much that was good could come of it. The ego was to be repressed and egoism in any form to be shunned. Fully unlearning those false lessons took me many years.

I bring this up now because Dan Rockwell reminded me just how important the ego is in accomplishing anything worthwhile. I have sung the praises before of Leadership Freak, Dan’s management blog. In his post The Two Qualities That Make Leaders Great(April 8, 2014), he postulates that humility and drive are the two qualities of great leaders, and that there is a balancing act between them. (Reading his post is very much worth your while.) As I read it, it occurred to me that a strong reciprocal relationship exists between these two qualities and I posted the following thought:


There is almost a checks and balances built into this paradigm. It suggests two questions to me, a way of turning the mirror back on myself. “Am I driving for improvement arrogantly?” “Is there still enough me in the equation to fuel that drive for improvement?”


Dan’s response was illuminating. “The dance between ego/humility is real. We need a powerful sense of self in order not to get lost in serving.” It took me one more step on my journey down the road of self, allowing me to articulate after all these years the nature of this misconception about ego. People confuse ego with arrogance.

I found it instructive to double check the meaning of the word. Ego is both a Latin and Greek word meaning I, and is often used in English to refer to self or personal identity. In psychology, it takes on a more specialized meaning as the part of our psyche that provides the organized, realistic element of our framework. In neither case is the meaning of ego negative. In fact, in the psychological sense, it is our ego that helps to manage the rambunctious id.

Nonetheless, the campaign against ego persists. A little bit of poking around online revealed a plethora of anti-ego propaganda. I have seen contemporary culture take misunderstandings and create entire movements based on them, but the vilification of ego goes well beyond that and it has been going on for a long time. Perhaps this is the opportunity to begin turning that viewpoint around, because the ego – the knowledge of self – is critical for both individual and organizational success.

As I look at the world, the people who are most effective – those who truly deliver value and leave the world a better place – have a very strong sense of self. One of my favorite examples is Mother Teresa. There was a person with a strong knowledge of personal identity. She was not at all self-less, for she could not have lived her extraordinary life if she had been. On the contrary, her strength derived from her remarkable grounding in self, driven by values (in this case her faith) and the work she was ordained to do (purpose). Mother Teresa was self-giving. And this aligns so well with Dan’s words. “We need a powerful sense of self in order not to get lost in serving.”

I have noted the same thing throughout my professional life. Colleagues and team members who consistently deliver value are the ones who are driven by values and the need for improvement. They have purpose in everything they do. There is tremendous ego required for creativity in all walks of life. Without ego we cannot see beyond our most immediate needs to what something could be if we went there.

This is not to say that there are not people who can perform at some level of value delivery without ego, but they are rarely able to do so in any form of collaborative situation. This is where arrogance enters the equation. Arrogance is the disguise for a fragile ego. It is a veneer that seeks to protect that fragility from the risk of criticism or failure. Arrogance works well, perhaps, for someone functioning alone, but it is deadly in any team or organization. It is deadly because it closes our ears to the needs and ideas of others.

The need for identity or knowledge of self applies just as much to organizations as it does to individuals. In fact, organizational identity is a key success factor for groups of any type.

  • Non-profit Organizations: As trustees of public money, how can we make appropriate decisions? Who are our constituents? Why we are uniquely able to deliver?
  • Multinational Corporation: Who are we? Who are our customers? What differentiates us in the marketplace?
  • Civic organization: Who are we? Whom do we serve? What are their needs? Do our values or purpose overlap with or conflict with other entities?

This is more than just getting organized. When an organization has a clear and aligned awareness of identity – a distinct organizational ego – then all of the participants (be they employees, volunteers, or board members) know how to act or react. There is certainty that their shared values and purpose inform and shape their decisions and actions. There is a consistency of expectation and behavior. There is an underlying harmony in the overall effort. But organizations are in constant flux, and it requires effort to achieve and maintain this alignment.

Bear in mind that organizations, like individuals, are not immune to arrogance. Over the years, I have encountered a number of businesses and groups that have evolved a shared arrogance in place of ego. That arrogance made each one of them impervious to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Stubbornly refusing to change just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “that’s the way we do it here” is a behavior that is not driven by values and purpose, especially when those new ideas are consistent with the organizational identity.

The other half of Dan’s point, though – “the dance between ego/humility is real” – is the crux of the matter and takes us back to my two questions. At the same time that there must be plenty of me in the drive to improve, I must also be checking my humility tank constantly for traces of arrogance. That and other pollutants will easily retard my ability to listen to others, accept new ideas, and understand the needs and dreams of my colleagues.

As I mentioned above, my journey of self has been pretty much life long. My understanding of institutional ego is relatively recent and still evolving. Nevertheless, it is clear that effective people, teams, and organizations are powered by ego. They have the confidence to be creative, try new things, experiment with new perspectives, and drive improvement. They have strength and clarity that derive from understanding core values and purpose, and being able to make choices that are consistent with that identity.   It is as beneficial for a Fortune 500 company as it is for a saint.

As for me, I find that I need to check in with my core values and purpose regularly. Even though they do not change much, they are still maturing slowly. So go ahead. Try it yourself. Put a little polish on your ego. Just do so with humility and then be ready to serve.

How do you maintain a clear knowledge of self on your teams? What techniques do you use to mitigate arrogance in the workplace?


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