A Leader's Ego: Constructive or destructive?Sep 22, 2023
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, your ego is “your idea or opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability.”
In psychoanalytic terms, the ego attempts to achieve one’s hidden desires within the demands of the real world.
These two dimensions are important for a leader to understand about themselves, because like with most things, it’s not that simple.
Although there are many different interpretations of ego, it doesn’t add a whole lot of value to explore the nuance between the various interpretations. The true meaning for our purposes is the concept’s common usage and understanding.
When people speak of a leader (or anyone for that matter) as “having an ego” they generally mean that the leader is arrogant, “full of themselves”, and even somewhat narcissistic. The term commonly implies a negative characteristic.
This usage of the concept of “ego” implies that the person has an inflated sense of their own self-esteem, or conversely, that they are trying to enhance their image to others thereby enhancing their own self-esteem and their own sense of self and of self-worth.
There are a number of dimensions here.
If the leader has low self-esteem (and therefore they don’t think they’re worthy of their authority) then it is possible that their actions and behaviours are affected by that perception.
What one might see in that leader’s world is the acceptance of behaviours and activities that enhance the leader, and a rejection of behaviours and activities that might “diminish” the leader.
Such attitudes will also see the leader blaming others instead of accepting the responsibility of genuine fault and of leadership, because such admissions diminish (in the mind of the leader) what they think others think of them.
They find it hard to accept the concept that it takes a true leader to admit fault or wrong to themselves, let alone to others.
These attributes are unfortunate and relatively easily identified by people working close to such a leader. This type of self-aggrandising ego-driven leadership tends to impact the organisational culture turning it into a blaming and non-sharing environment. Some types of organisations can survive this for a while but for others, it is catastrophic.
Interestingly, it is common that a person who pursues ego-gratification is insecure and craves the gratification to feel better about themselves.
Implied from the work of Dunning-Kruger, leaders who possess low leadership skills, overestimate their leadership capabilities (thus fuelling their egos). However, those with strong leadership skills are well-aware that they are not perfect leaders and have much to learn.
The other aspect of a negative ego is the failure to seek the input, wisdom, or experience of others; as seeking such input is perceived by the ego-driven leader, as a testament to their not knowing, rather than their maturity for asking for other opinions.
So far, it has been a summary of negative impacts of ego-driven leaders and the way that such characteristics negatively impact the organisation.
However, we must also recognise the positive effects of ego on people and on leaders. Ego is the driver of ambition that helps stimulate (and reward) people to achieve their ambitions – and that’s a good thing.
We have all heard of those amazing individuals who have worked hard, and wisely, over many years to achieve their dreams. That’s a very impressive journey – especially when such ambition brings others along on the journey – and especially when that journey harmed no one but enhanced everyone.
A leader who is well aware of the status of their ego and doesn’t need to manipulate activities, events, structures, or people to enhance it, is the typical effective leader.
The reason for this is that the effective leader pursues better control over the cause and effect of organisational operations. When a leader’s ego is in the negative, then that pursuit is harmed. When the leader’s ego is in the positive, then that pursuit is aided.
However, it’s sometimes a very fine line between the positive pursuit of personal ambition, and the negative effects of treading on others to achieve it. Telling the difference is the mark of an effective leader.
The lesson here for leaders is straight-forward: participate in a situation in a way that your ego will not make it harder to progress it or that it will distort its process or outcomes.
The discussion so far has legitimately been focussed on leaders and their egos. However, the leader must deal with many people, and they too have egos.
Where the leader is dealing with another effective leader, they will normally get to the point quickly and common one-upmanship will not play a role.
Where the leader is dealing with another leader who doesn’t have effective control of their ego, then the chest-beating may be present in the other person.
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2 Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121–1134.