Why Being Ego-Free Might Be the Key to Leadership

Effective leaders learn how to fight their own destructive ego-driven habits.

How can leaders fight their own destructive ego-driven habits? Author provided

In a moment of ego, I was checking an airport bookstore to see if they had a copy of my book Ego is the Enemy (and if they did, how prominently were they displaying it? These are the questions authors ask themselves). They did not. But they did have a book by another author about ego and so in a moment of what I hope was egolessness, I thought, “I’d really like to talk to that person.” So I reached out and the following interview is the result.

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Clearly Shayne Hughes and I are not the first two people to think that ego is a problem. You can find warnings from leaders in any field. The founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds has called ego one of “the biggest problem that humanity faces.” Artist Marina Abramovic warns creatives that ego and believing in one’s own greatness is “the death of your creativity.” As a coach Bill Belichick believes his job is to be “completely dedicated to fighting off the virus caused by too much ego.” And on and on and on.

In Ego Free Leadership, Shayne Hughes and his co-author, the then-CEO of Encore Capital work through how leaders can fight their own destructive ego-driven habits. It is rooted in Shayne’s personal experiences, as well as the lessons learned from the years of consulting work he has done with executives and clients such as NASA, Fairchild Semiconductor and Shell Oil. In Ego is the Enemy, I wanted to portray ego as this sort of self-created headwind that makes the already hard and ambitious things we are attempting even harder. Both of us are saying, “Look, completely egolessness is not possible but if you can work to understand and balance out your own ego, you’ll not only be more successful and happier—you’ll be less likely to undermine those things once you have them.”

With that in mind, I hope you enjoy this interview.

I’d love to know what motivated you to focus on ego as a leadership problem? I know that for me personally part of it was observing up close the catastrophic effects ego can have on people (including myself) and I’d be curious to hear if there are parallels there?

I first began working on my ego out of… desperation. I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, and felt off track on many levels: partying, procrastinating, running away in romantic relationships. I was unhappy, self-medicating, and not making progress on my own. My parents encouraged me to attend a seminar being offered by some folks from France. I had no idea what to expect but the process helped me look under the hood. Beneath my acting out was…fear. Not being good enough, failing, not being lovable.

I realized that pains and conclusions from my childhood were causing me to interpret and react counter productively to situations in my current life. I was perpetuating many unnecessary costs in my life and in the lives of others. As I began to unwind all of this, I discovered that others experienced similar feelings of isolation and fear of judgment. Changing this became central to my life’s mission.

Much of this, by the way, I share through a memoir, entitled When the Running Began.

Only later did I and we begin to call all this “ego”. Because the founders of our methodology were business people, we quickly realized that these unhealthy dynamics hijacked leadership and team effectiveness.

One of the tough things about ego is that it’s tough to define. Freudian ego? Is it the same thing as confidence? What’s your definition?

This is a great question. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. Our definition is very specific (and I think, relatable): our constant pre-occupation with our self worth.

While our ego can feel like a whirling dervish, it is actually a predictable system of triggers and reactions that can be mapped out. Each of us has beliefs and fears about our value, and they cause defensive and/or self-promotional behaviors when under stress. Whether in a meeting, a presentation, or a relationship, part of our attention—sometimes all of it—is preoccupied by our view of our self. Are we competent? Respected? Intelligent? Liked? Attractive? Included?

Each of us has a set of criteria we unconsciously judge ourselves against. When we measure up, we feel pride, even superiority. When we don’t, we feel uncomfortable, stressed, often afraid. These feelings of inadequacy or imperfection automatically trigger knee-jerk reactions, usually in the form of fight–flight behaviors. Although they often feel “right” in the moment, these reactions have wide-ranging negative consequences. In particular, they often cause us to act in direct contradiction to our true life goals of connecting, growing and contributing.

I would offer that strong ego is correlated with low confidence. It’s a cover. The truly confident are able to feel weak, imperfect, inadequate—even publicly—and still show up in a transparent, constructive, learning mindset. I’m still aspiring to this.

Something that I had to consistently answer after Ego is the Enemy came out was people pointing out that a lot of very accomplished people, say Kanye West or Steve Jobs or Douglas MacArthur or even Donald Trump, have enormous egos. Is that something you’ve also come across with your book?

We all have enormous egos, myself included. It’s the very rare leader or person I meet who doesn’t have strong self-protective mechanisms. Some people are more subtle than others. For example, they may hide and disengage vs. steamroll. That’s still ego.

People with egos who dominate others (how I might reframe your list above) may still succeed. While they may believe that they succeed because of their strong ego, my experience is that they succeed despite it. (Think about how many people with domineering egos get nowhere in life). The folks on your list have enormous talent, strengths, and vision. While ego may push them to drive themselves harder, it also makes their success about themselves. This has costs. How many brilliant, successful people have dysfunctional personal lives, and troubled children? How many of them have infighting in their organizations? Or blow their careers up at some point?

If these leaders were less driven by their insatiable need to prove their worth, and more guided by their noble goal and their intention to create a healthy context for others as well as themselves, what might they create? Their talents wouldn’t decrease, but rather expand. People around them would elevate their vision instead of squandering their energy jockeying for power.

In ego-driven leaders, purpose takes a distant backseat to personal success. It also sets the cultural norm for the people around them. The lost performance can be measured in orders of magnitude. I try to draw this out in my co-author’s story in his company.

While very accomplished, Kanye West is know for having an enormous ego. Larry Busacca/Getty Images

You’ve written about the concepts of ‘defensive ego’ and ‘offensive ego.’ Can you briefly explain the two and how they differ?

Defensive ego is easier to recognize, because it stems from protecting ourselves from failure, being hurt, and being judged. I’m defending against a danger. I say I’m a lifelong learner, but you give me feedback and I feel criticized, so I involuntarily get defensive. I argue, deflect, blame because my ego hears that you’re judging me or telling me I’m wrong.  Or, for example, I’m afraid of being rejected or hurt, so I disengage, shut down, or get angry.  Our defensive ego protects our self-image from (perceived) threats.

Our offensive ego, on the other hand, is much more troublesome. It yearns to be acknowledged and admired. We want to be the uber-competent, savior-hero who is the go-to, get it done person pulling off the impossible task and getting promoted quicker than anyone in history—not to mention being admired and respected by others who realize they simply can’t survive without us.

When our offensive ego is engaged, and we think we’re being admired because we’re so amazing, we cease to see others (their needs, ideas, feelings, contributions). It’s all about us, so other people feel shunted aside, inferior, threatened. This generates distrust and unhealthy competition in teams, organizations and families.

What have you found are the most useful daily or weekly practices that your clients have undertaken and have resulted in better management of their egos?

Self-awareness is the first step.  Learn to identify the part of your emotional response to any situation that is coming from your self-worth. Nervous about an upcoming talk or board presentation? Feeling angry about a remark a colleague or spouse/partner made to you? Not able to complete an important task or project? Any time you are feeling “reactive” or off-center in your approach, it is a sign your ego is engaged.

Look first for your defensive ego, as it tends to be easier to recognize. What anxiety or mind chatter do you have related to your worth? (e.g., feeling stupid, inadequate, incompetent, disliked, etc.). This can feel like a gut punch when we put our finger on it; it’s much more satisfying to blame others.

Track these feelings for a few weeks, and you’ll notice that it’s always the same 2-3 concerns. These are your “ego threats.” Each time you have one in a situation, it feels real and unique to that moment. It’s not. It’s just your ego playing out its routine again and again.  

And as a final question, who are today’s leaders that you look up to and use as examples as people who have mastered their egos?

This is difficult, because no one person jumps to mind. In addition, I don’t know these people, so my view of them is based only on what I read and observe from afar.

Maybe I can offer aspects/behaviors of people that are emblematic of an ego-free mindset. A key characteristic I look for are people who have goals for something larger than themselves.

I’m a basketball fan, so my apologies for sports-related examples. Steph Curry – he seems to have a healthy dose of humility and appreciation for others, while still being committed to excellence. He told Kevin Durant he was fine to not be the face of the Warriors franchise. He had an intention for the overall team and organization, even if he needed to step back from being so indispensable and admired.  To explore, however: did he over-index, because he didn’t want to appear territorial or get in a power struggle? Maybe his ego caused him to be too accommodating?

LeBron James—in his letter explaining his return to Cleveland from Miami, he clearly seemed motivated by something larger than basketball and his own success: making a difference for the larger context of northeast Ohio. Yes, he insisted on a max contract, but we’re not talking about sacrificial altruism. At other moments, the relationships between Lebron and the Cavs organization seem disrupted by ego-dynamics. I add that only to point out that vigilance towards our ego is a moment by moment practice. One day or interaction, I’m totally centered; the next, something triggers me, and if I’m not aware of it, my ego takes over.

It is tempting to talk politicians, but I will refrain from anything specific. My one remark: the world today does seem to lack ego free leaders who are being guided by a larger purpose for a larger whole (meaning, not just my people). I see a lot of ‘be right and win at all costs, undermine the other, protect my job’ behavior. Sometimes one side wins, then later it’s the other. The downside of leading this way is that no sustainable solutions will be implemented. When we overpower others, we’re setting up their revenge motives. It will swing back around.

When we put aside our ego, and engage and uplift others (while they do the same to us), we tap into our incredible potential as human beings to reinvent what’s possible. In that space, everything is solvable, even the most entrenched conflicts, in a durable way.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.

He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.

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Why Being Ego-Free Might Be the Key to Leadership