Lieven's Blog

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The Ego Evolution of Leaders

clipboard-with-pencil_16x16It is almost a fixed pattern. As soon as leaders get a little bit of power or success, there is a fair chance that their ego gets corrupted.

The ego represents the way we want to be perceived by others and the way we perceive ourselves. In contrast, the identity of a person stands for his or her authentic self, the way we really are. Think about the ego and the identity of a person as two balloons. When a person has a balanced personality, both balloons have about the same size. It’s OK when the ego is a bit bigger than our true identity. Most of us hope to be perceived a bit more intelligent, funny or beautiful than we really are. The problem however emerges when the ego-balloon starts to grow out of proportion in comparison with our true identity. This is what frequently happens when people get into leadership positions. In many cases, I observed that a little power or a little success is enough to blow up the ego drastically.

Once this happens particular kinds of behavior starts to show. Leaders become more and more defensive when receiving feedback. They take every opportunity to rationalize their own behavior, even when this behavior is out of line. A leader was yelling at the receptionist of his company because she didn’t order the right kind of sandwich for his lunch. It didn’t bother him that others could observe the scene. After the incident we sat together, still excited he tells me: “Can you believe this, I work 16 hours a day to make sure all these people have a job. However if I have a simple request to order a sandwich for me, they can’t even make the effort to ensure I get what I’ve asked for. In another organization she would have been fired for this.” The more they start to rationalize their behavior, the lesser rational their explanations become. A leader in another organization wrote in the company regulations that women in his company should shave their legs. Even for this he had a perfect, and in his opinion legitimate, “rationale”.

Because of their almost constant defensive behavior, these leaders receive less and less honest feedback from colleagues and employees. Unfortunately they often mistake the lack of corrective feedback as a sign that they are on the right track. You can hear them say: “I only heard positive responses about the speech I gave yesterday”. This adds more air to their ego balloon, and things start to get even more out of hand.

When the size of the ego further expands and the difference with the identity becomes wider, the leaders gets increasingly under pressure because they feel obliged to keep the inflated ego intact. Unless they get out of this self-imposed situation, they have basically four possible options to deal with the situation. One way is to become highly competitive and try to over perform others constantly. The second option, when they can’t keep up with the competitive pace (and eventually they all do) is to talk in a demeaning manner about others and to ridicule the work of peers and competitors. A third option is to search for new ideas in google, copy the ideas and then claim them to be their own. If this is not sufficient, some of them unfortunately start to use means that could bring them in confrontation with the legal authorities. It is as if they become ego addicts, they will do literally everything to keep up appearances.

Another indication of leaders with an overinflated ego is that they start to crave for recognition. As long as they receive a lot of attention from colleagues, peers, employees, the media, etc, they feel safe (for a while). It is therefore that they tend to repeat the things they did in the past or tell the same stories (e.g. jokes) over and over. Each time they expect to receive the same kind of positive reactions as they eventually received in the past.

It is an important challenge for every leader to keep the balance between their true identity and their ego. Success makes that they receive applause, attention and even admiration from others. To enjoy your success and at the same time resisting the temptation of developing an over-inflated sense of self-importance is not an easy task.

So far I didn’t find the magic formula that can explain why some leaders can keep their ego under control and others can’t. However each time I worked with leaders who have control over their ego, I could observe so far that there are two main variables that play an important role. The first is that they kept open at least one important “feedback channel” that could provide them with direct, honest and clear feedback about themselves. It’s the person who, if necessary, will tell the leader what he or she doesn’t like to hear. This person comes with the right intentions and gives this feedback because he/she cares. Not seldom it is their partner in life and/or an external coach or mentor that provides them with this valuable information. In contrast, most of the times when I’m confronted with leaders with over-inflated ego’s, they were surrounded by people who told them what they wanted to hear. Often it is because the leader has become so intimidating and defensive that people have stopped giving him/her honest feedback.

The second variable is that leaders who can keep their ego under control, use the feedback they receive with the intention to grow as a person. They have an intrinsic motivation to change if necessary. However, when providing feedback to a manipulative leader, they will use this information to become better in exploiting others. If you are a coach or mentor to such leaders, you might like to consider this.

If leaders fail to control their ego they risk to lose it all. A lack of necessary and clear feedback increases the chances that they make the wrong business decisions. On a personal level however, due to their way of treating others, they risk to get isolated from their social network. Only as long as they keep up the image of success, they will be surrounded by “followers”. They might have many friends on Facebook, but very few friends in the real world.

That’s why I hope (without any feelings of pleasure) that young leaders who suffer from an over inflated ego, experience failure at an early stage in their career. If this happens and they are guided by the right people they will learn important lessons that will help them to become much better leaders. I say this because I have seen now several times how devastating it is for leaders when they go on pension and only then realize that they never really had true followers. It is a sad moment in a persons’ life if they learn that they had an over inflated-ego and people have tolerated them only because of their status and power.