Leadership Myth #5 - Great Leaders Have Large Egos
To understand why this is a myth, it would be good to understand the meaning of the word "ego." A dictionary would define ego as:
1. The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves.
2. In psychoanalysis, the division of the psyche that is conscious, most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality.
3. a. An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.
b. Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem.
The layman's view of having high ego means a person is too filled with himself. The focus of attention is on how great the person is, such that all interfaces are colored by the leader's need to shine relative to others. This placing one's self above others in all ways at all times is the common view of an overactive ego. Leaders in the classical view often do demonstrate bloated egos. There is a need to be perceived as the end-all and be-all in the organization. This ensures power, and power leads to control which keeps your boat upright and heading in the right direction.
Many people expect their leader to have a huge ego. It comes with the territory: a divine right given to someone who made it to the top of the heap based on wits, intelligence, political savvy, or just hard work. Having a leader who was not full of ego would seem unnatural or incongruent.
The view that high ego must accompany the leader is flawed. In fact, with the concept of the servant leader, the reverse is seen to be more powerful. In the image of Christ, who washed the feet or his disciples, great leaders are not bound to have inflated opinions of themselves. In Good to Great, Jim Collins identified "humility" as one of the two common characteristics of all Level 5 leaders. In fact, he found a negative correlation between high ego and great leadership. Could we have been so wrong for all those years, or is there another explanation?
I believe there is a balance. Excellent leadership does entail that a person know and respect herself. Leaders need to understand their position and power in order to use it for the good of the organization. That is one of the key points Daniel Goleman makes in Emotional Intelligence. So, if ego means a high degree of self-awareness, then it does go with good leadership. What does not go is a false sense of the worth of a person's opinion. If a leader's self talk is all about herself and showing her great insights, then ego is getting in the way of listening to people. That is a disaster for any leader because it does not allow the reinforcement of candor.
For thegreat leader, the self-awareness part of ego does not go further into the realm of thinking that "my ideas are better than yours," or more simply, "I am better than you." The evidence is overwhelming that this attitude will produce alienation rather than respect. It will polarize people rather than foster teamwork. It will reduce the longevity of any leader or at least cause constant need to tack because the results are marginalized. It will reduce the essence of great leadership, and that is trust.