Harvard Business Online

Three Ways to Keep Your Ego in Check


Posted on Leadership at Work: December 10, 2009 9:07 AM

"It's okay if other people think you're God, but you're in trouble if you start believing it."

David Cornwell, a sports attorney, recalled that quote as one uttered by his father, a surgeon. While Cornwell was speaking on Larry King Live about Tiger Woods' foibles, the quote has relevance to anyone in a leadership position, not just doctors and big name athletes.

Sure, leaders have to believe in themselves—otherwise no one else will. Their conviction in their own abilities has to be strong as well as resilient, but such self-assurance cannot be allowed to become arrogance. So often when we see business leaders making poor decisions it seems as if their ego is speaking louder than their voice of reason.

And yet we need to remember that, while it's easy to throw stones at people and power, and lampoon their outsized egos when they stumble, so often that outsize ego is the result of the relentless fawning of others. You do not rise to power without followers, but if that followership is more sycophantic than supportive, the leader can lose his bearings.

Keeping your ego in check is an exercise in humility, with the emphasis on the word exercise, so here are a few tips:

Accept praise, but never believe it totally. Ancient Romans had a tradition of welcoming home victorious military commanders with a state-sponsored procession that included the commander riding in his chariot. Legend has it that a slave standing next to him would hold a golden laurel above his head and whisper into his ear, "Remember you are mortal." True or not, it is a good lesson for anyone who achieves success to remind himself that success is earned, not bestowed. You need to keep earning it.

Listen to your best friend. While the word "friendship" may have become diluted in this era of social media mouse-clicking, the relationship between people who know and respect each other remains essential. Such friends (be they spouses or colleagues) are not afraid to give each other the straight dope. Senior leaders need the friendship of one or two close associates whom they trust above others to tell them the truth. Treasure those friendships.

Reflect on your shortcomings. Taking time out to gain perspective on what you are doing is valuable. In the Catholic tradition, penitents are taught to go through an examination of conscience, reflecting on their transgressions. A frank look at what you have done wrong, as it applies to decisions made, behaviors exerted, and treatment of others is vital to a leader keeping his head on straight. Too much dwelling on the negative is not good, but a frank assessment of shortcomings is advised.

Ego affirms a leader's ability to take charge. But checking the ego demonstrates a leader's ability to take charge of himself. That is critical to developing strong organizations which can achieve sustainable results.
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Baldoni is an executive coach and chair of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a global leadership consultancy. John is the author of 12 books on leadership including Lead with Purpose and his newest The Leader’s Guide to Speaking with Presence. He can be contacted via his Web site, www.johnbaldoni.com.

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