We all have one, and in fact having an ego is a pretty important aspect of being human. It can be defined as “The “I” or self of any person”, it is our “self-esteem, self-image”. So as a leader, it is important to have an ego that works for us. It is like confidence or commitment, great to have in the right measures, but dangerous and damaging if there is too much.
So as a leader, is ego a good thing? Is having a large ego a good thing?
There is little doubt that leaders who are not able to put aside their ego for the sake of the team are rarely able to work as part of the team. If a leader has a large ego and also happens to be high up in the organisation, being the CEO or Headteacher, then the evidence points to that being bad for medium and long-term results, profits and health.
I believe a large ego threatens outcomes, sustainability and greatness more than any other aspect of leadership.
Large ego as the head of the organisation
There has been much research on this topic and the effects are well documented. It could be argued that some organisations have seen significant failure as a result of employing leaders with large egos, such as Enron, Worldcom and Tyco. More recently we have seen the effects here in the UK at Tesco as well as in Schools.
Though there are a number of leadership styles and approaches, it would seem to me that we should look at those that are most successful, have the best impact and are about sustainability and long-term results. Jim Collins (2001) suggests that the most successful leaders are ‘Level 5’ leaders. These leaders are paradoxical in that they have extreme personal humility and yet have a steely intense professional will. They have an unwavering resolve based on understanding the truth about their organisation, they are rigorous not ruthless, they inspire through standards, are ambitious for the organisation not for themselves and they build momentum over time. They are modest, never boastful, calm, avoid the limelight, and accept blame but attribute success to others. They set up success for their successors.
In contrast, the larger than life leaders with over inflated egos tend to believe that success naturally follows them; they love fads, often re-structure and make redundancies, are ambitious for themselves and seek a quick fix. They gain validation and self-esteem through being seen as a great leader, inspire through charisma, blame others for mistakes, take credit for success and set up their successors to fail.
Research by Jim Collins (2001) shows that “great” organisations employ level 5 leaders, and organisations that fail or never become “great”, employ larger than life leaders with over inflated egos instead. Having leaders with large egos is also seen as a sign of future ethical collapse, as identified Marianne Jennings (2006). She suggests that these leaders apply high levels of pressure to meet the numbers, they instigate a culture of fear and silence, promote young inexperience people in order to manipulate them, promote weak governance, have many conflicts of interest, innovate to the extreme, and use ‘good works’ to cover up and atone for wrong doing. Ethical collapse follows and is itself closely followed by organisational failure.
“Ego is the ultimate killer of a team,” states Patrick Lencioni (2002). Most profiling systems, such as DISC, identify leaders with large egos as scoring very high in the dominant style and they suggest that these individuals perform best as entrepreneurs or working alone. The significant question for any team is, “can each individual put aside their ego for the sake of the team” and larger than life people with large egos rarely can. Teamwork flies in the face of autocratic leadership and shouts loud of collaboration, unity and being a place where everyone has a voice and is heard.
Teams remain our most competitive advantage and will continually outperform the ‘genius with a thousand follows” model. However, high functioning teams though powerful and also rare.
Do you want to be great?
Then good is the enemy of great.
If you wish to be a great organisation, team or department, then I would suggest not employing leaders or team members with a large over inflated egos. Try not to be taken in by their promises, over-estimation of their abilities, their personality, charisma, star qualities or quick fix quick turnaround ideas, however tempting it may be.
Look for level 5 leaders. They are often already working for your organisation, they know the organisation well, but are often over looked. Go seek them out and employ people like that in your teams.
Use Partick Lencioni’s “5 dysfunctions of a team” model to set yourself apart and bring about the competitive advantage you need to become “great”. This could turn out to be the most challenging training and development your team will ever experience.
This article has been written by our Leadership Specialist Ian White.
If you feel it would be valuable to your team to look at ongoing team dynamics, we can deliver onsite training. Our specialist in team dynamics, will take your leaders through the assessment and support them in reaching conclusions and actions to take your organisation forward. Just give us a call on 01924 827869 to discuss your needs.
Jim Collins (2001) “From Good to Great”
Marianne Jennings (2006) “The 7 signs of ethical collapse”
Patrick Lencioni (20020 “The five dysfunctions of teams”