Books: How to be a decent, successful human..

Too competitive? Too defensive? Some ego is good at work but too much can be toxic. Stefan Stern hails a serious primer.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Egonomics: What makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive
David Marcum and Steven Smith
Simon & Schuster £12.99

Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way. As an elite MT reader, you knew that already. But now here come David Marcum and Steven Smith to spoil our fun and point out that, actually, there is a time and a place for humility in business, and sometimes that brass neck needs to be pulled in a bit.

Our authors' subject is ego: personality, will, intent and desire. Both writers are consultants who have spent years working with corporate leadership teams. And at first sight you might have thought ego was bound to be essentially a good thing to cultivate in this ever more competitive world. Sharp elbows, allied to ego, should win you your place in the sun. 'Shy bairns get nowt', as they say up north.

But our authors want to make an altogether more subtle and interesting argument. Sure, some ego is good. Having enough ego is essential. But too much ego is toxic and destructive. Hence the book's subtitle, which alludes to both the asset and liability side of the ego balance sheet. The trick is to develop the kind of balanced, rounded personality that allows for the existence of ego, but also for the existence of everybody else's ego as well.

There are four leading indicators that ego may be getting out of hand, the authors suggest, and three main characteristics of ego being successfully deployed.

The first ego hazard is 'being comparative' - ie, too competitive. We get side-tracked by wasting too much energy making futile and misleading comparisons with others. 'We set goals we shouldn't set to begin with, we set the bar higher than is reachable or realistic, or we get comfortable where we are,' the authors say. And as Henry Ford said: 'The competitor to be feared is the one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.' Toyota seems to have grasped that point - at Ford's expense.

The second ego pitfall is being defensive. 'When the power of ego surges, our intent switches from honestly defending our point to proving our case exclusively,' the authors argue. 'In the relentless effort to be "right", we find fault with others, even if it is unrelated to the discussion at hand.'

The third ego no-no is 'showcasing brilliance': letting everyone know how much more wonderful you are than everybody else. Smith and Marcum counsel restraint. 'The more we expect people to appreciate or be dazzled by our brilliance, the less they listen, even if we do have better ideas.' If you ever catch yourself thinking you have nothing left to learn, watch out.

And the last obvious ego failing is 'seeking acceptance' - which is what happens when we have too little of the stuff. The authors quote the Catholic priest and writer John Powell, who said: 'If I tell you who I am you may not like who I am, and it is all that I have.' The authors concur: 'When we fear rejection, being liked less, or losing acceptance, we trade authenticity and self-confidence for approval from those around us.'

What is the antidote? It is the holy trinity of humility, curiosity and veracity. The authors interpret humility as a proper understanding of your worth, no more and no less. 'Humility is intelligent self-respect that keeps us from thinking too much or too little of ourselves,' they write. 'It reminds us how far we have come while at the same time helping us see how far short we are of what we can be.'

Allied to curiosity (which keeps us asking questions, and stops us settling for the merely OK), and veracity (which makes sure we grapple with the truth of the situation), the worst harm out-of-control egos can cause may be avoided.

That is 'egonomics': the skilful deployment of ego to get what you and your business want, without making an enemy of everyone you come into contact with.

You see? Simple. But maybe not all that easy. My one big criticism is that the authors have been seduced by the idea of having a catchy title. Ego is a bit of a turn-off word for most people. And when I hear ego, MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over).

Of course, what Smith and Marcum have written is a serious primer on what it means to be a decent, successful human being. It's not so much about ego, it's about a balanced and constructive approach to life. But then I guess a book called A Balanced and Constructive Approach to Life wouldn't necessarily have flown off the shelves.

Stefan Stern is a contributing editor to MT.

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