Why ego is toxic to leadership

There's a fine line between self-confidence and narcissism. Trample (Trumple?) over it at your peril.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Nov 2016

You may have thought that we’d done away with childish notions of heroism. To the mature mind, a hero is not an infallible demigod in a cape, but a human being whose virtues are all the more profound precisely because of their accompanying flaws.

The hero leader, as such, is a fading force. In the grown-up age of inclusive leadership, we want bosses who listen, who care, who sit among the troops, who’re willing to admit they’re wrong. Don’t we?

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States has firmly put that notion to bed. The hero leader is alive and kicking. Trump’s pitch was built on a big personality - full of strength, decisiveness, energy and charisma – and even bigger promises, which only he could deliver.

It highlights one of the greatest weaknesses of heroic leadership, and one of the greatest pitfalls any leader or manager needs to watch out for: ego.

We all have an ego, and no one’s immune to pride. In truth we all need a little self-belief, because without it we’d never stand up for ourselves or live up to our potential. But Trump’s another level.

He stamps his name on everything he touches. He refers to himself in the 3rd person. His belief that he is the best knows no bounds, even when he is presented with clear evidence to the contrary.

Ego like that is toxic to good leadership. Evidently egotistical leaders can deliver spectacular results, but to allow ego to go unrestrained is to court disaster.

Ego is the enemy of self-improvement

Ryan Holiday knows a thing or two about the dangers of overconfidence. The bestselling author of Ego is the Enemy has the title of his book tattooed on his forearm as a daily reminder of its central message. He believes an over-inflated ego is a problem at all stages of a career, but particularly when we’re managing others.

‘You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot become a better manager or a leader if you’re convinced you are already the best one,’ Holiday says.

Arrogant leaders refuse to listen as well as learn, making them vulnerable to making poor decisions. They will ignore warnings and advice, and may well surround themselves with sycophants so they don’t have to hear it.

The problem with arrogance is that it’s often built on genuine ability. But no amount of genuine ability will allow one person to be right all the time. Under that delusion comes first complacency, then paranoia and eventually often failure.

Holiday points to John DeLorean, who knew his own brilliance as an automotive engineer and inventor only too well. Once he started his own firm, he tried to do it all and met with disaster.

‘This is where ego is particularly toxic, because instead of learning from our mistakes, it blames other people or descends into hatred and resentment. Often it takes a problem and makes it significantly worse,’ says Holiday.

Nobody actually wants to work for a hero leader

The other major problem with an egotistical hero leader is that the qualities people might admire from afar are altogether less appealing when experienced up close. Ambition can easily become entitlement; vision can easily turn into micromanagement.

Holiday suggests we imagine a leader who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t say thank you or sorry, who refuses to admit they’re wrong (I’m sure we can all picture someone). ‘I don’t think your respect for that person increases after that encounter,’ he says. Neither, indeed, will your engagement with your job. Who wants to work for a person like that, anyway?

3 ways to deflate your own ego

Pride is a sin with subtle temptations. It feels good to feel good about yourself. It doesn’t seem like a problem to acknowledge your skills or to enjoy your successes. ‘The second you start gloating and letting success get to your head – that you’ve figured it all out – that’s precisely when you make some critical mistake or miscalculation,’ Holiday warns.

To avoid getting into that particular honeyed trap, try:

1. Seeking out objectivity. Ask yourself how realistic or objective you are about yourself. If upon reflection you still think you genuinely are right all the time, it might be worth approaching someone whose competence and independence you respect to get some unbiased feedback. If you’re criticised in areas you thought were strengths, see it as an opportunity to improve, not as a personal attack.

2. Practising humility. Remembering to say thank you, to praise colleagues or employees who’ve done well, and to say sorry when you’ve done wrong will go a long way, both in making you more self-aware and in improving relationships. ‘Ask how a more humble person would see this situation,’ Holiday counsels. If you’re struggling, then set yourself targets – it will help you remember.

3. Getting outdoors. ‘Going away in nature does a great job in making you feel small. It puts you in your place and you start seeing things with a bit more perspective,’ Holiday says. A word of warning though: if you opt for mountains, remember you may not actually be the world’s best climber after all. 


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Image credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, By Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (£9.99) is published by Profile Books.

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