Executive Insider

Ego is the enemy of outstanding leadership

At executive level, uncontrolled ego can kill a business. Recent research shows 57 percent of employees have left a job because of poor leadership. Losing top talent cost Australian businesses $3.8 billion over 12-months.

Ego: what is it? Simply put, it’s what keeps us alive and safe. It’s the thing that drives us forward, makes us want to improve and succeed. As Justin Foster points out, “It is designed to protect us. It craves form, identity, a role.” We all have an ego, but it’s not always balanced.

Ego becomes a problem when it takes over and starts to direct our every move. Most of us would recognise what a big ego looks like in others. The impression of self-importance and entitlement is clear to see. They can be judgemental and narcissistic. In a team, an ego-driven person can be toxic, fracturing team dynamics, trust, and performance capability. When that person is the leader, it has disastrous results.

Signs of ego-driven leadership

How can you spot an ego-driven leader? Look for some of these signs.

  • Ignores other opinions
  • Likes to be recognised as “the best”
  • Takes credit for team successes
  • Makes other people appear incompetent
  • Can’t see or accept personal weaknesses
  • Likes to maintain control of situations and people
  • Watches for mistakes made by others and points them out
  • Prefers to associate with people who have power or status
  • Complains about others to protect themselves
  • Is angered when criticised
  • Loves to be right all the time.
  • Can’t or won’t see perspectives other than their own

There are many more signs, but the common thread is that these leaders are focused solely on themselves. They have no idea about (or interest in) what’s happening to their people.

Impact of ego-driven leadership

There are numerous reports of the impact of poor and ego-driven leadership on employees and the bottom line. Researchers have found 76% of employees say they currently have or recently had a toxic boss, 54% of workers said bad bosses bad mouth colleagues and 52% are focused on proving themselves right. I’m sure you’re picking up on some of the signs of ego-driven leaders in those figures.

How ego destroys the quality of leadership 

The philosopher Muhammad Iqbal said. “The ultimate aim of the ego is not to see something, but to be something.” I believe that’s the essence of the problem. Ego-driven leaders want to be recognised as the person they think they are. Outstanding leaders are focused on others and how to support and serve them. Ego is a focus on self and empathy is a focus on others.

The ego drives leaders away from everything they need to be outstanding. They can’t admit to mistakes, they can’t be vulnerable or honest. They can’t improve themselves and have no capacity for growth because they believe they are already perfect. They can’t see what their people need because they don’t look. They have a fixed mindset, not growth. They use any people skills they might possess to further their own ends, not to build relationships with their people.

An over-inflated ego shapes their view of the world as though they were looking through blinkers.

How controlled is your ego?

The key is to ego is distinguishing between when it’s serving you and when it’s getting in your way” said author, Shane Parrish.

Your ego serves you well until it comes at the cost of your team, your work, or your relationships. You lose contracts and customers, miss deadlines and opportunities, and lose talented people. Can you put a figure on the cost of a big ego? Yes. Neil Petch says bigger egos are responsible for poorer financial performance to the cost of 6-15%.

Whether we’re talking about business finances and performance, our team engagement and performance or our own personal performance and impact, it’s clear that too much ego equates with considerable damage.

We can operate at both ends of the ego scale at any given moment. Somewhere there is balance.  None of us is perfect so one of our leadership practices should be to reflect on our actions each week to find where they sit on the ego scale. If you strive for outstanding leadership, actively manage your ego so you’re looking outward with clear vision. Your ego can be an asset or a liability. The choice is yours.


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Caroline Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy, author of Lead Beyond 2030: The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact, is an accomplished CEO and global thought leader on business and leadership. She is a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives. A respected keynote speaker and author, Caroline’s methods are neuroscience based to achieve rapid development and growth. Caroline Kennedy is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or connect on LinkedIn.