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The egotistical leader – much maligned, often parodied (think David Brent in The Office) and arguably a victim of their own success. The kind of behaviour we associate with them aligns with the classic definition of ego, which the Harvard Business Review determines to be “the enemy of good leadership”.
But it’s ok, right? You’re not that kind of leader. Maybe not, but there’s another (psychoanalytical) definition of ego, and this is the kind which influences the behaviour of us all. In Latin, “Ego” translates simply as “I”; it is the mental concept of who you are and forms the lens through which you make sense of the world around you. So yes, ego can create an over-inflated sense of importance in the world, but it can also do just the opposite, depending upon your conditioning.
The way in which conditioning works is complex, but imagine it like this: The human species is one of the most underdeveloped at birth. Unlike others (for example the Great White Shark) who are independent moments after taking their first breath, humans need roughly a year before developing basic skills such as walking, talking and feeding ourselves. Our caregivers, therefore, are essential to our survival, and the bond established between adult and child is called attachment. There are many facets to attachment, but one that is vital to the underdeveloped brain of a child is social referencing, whereby the infant refers to the adult to gauge how they should react to something.
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Consider too the language adults often use when speaking to children as a reflection of the traits they, as caregivers, deem to be acceptable or otherwise, for example:
“What a good girl you are!”
“Boys don’t cry!”
“You are so clever/silly/clumsy!"
As a young child, therefore, your perception of yourself is based upon the belief systems of your caregiver(s), and you adhere to them unconsciously to maintain that bond and ensure your survival. You then grow older, and outside this fundamental attachment relationship you are also influenced by external dynamics such as culture, religion, teachers, friends and - crucially - the meaning you apply to the experiences you have across your lifetime. Your ego is formed according to a ‘script’ of sorts; what to think, how to behave, what is considered good or bad, all built upon the belief systems of those teaching and influencing you and how they view the world themselves.
By the time we reach adulthood, the ego is rigid and will always defend itself. If you need confirmation of this, you only have to glance at social media to see all the conflict in the world built upon separatism, through opposing beliefs being held as the single undeniable truth. The ego creates a zero-sum game wherein if you win, I lose; it gives us an unhealthy view of our own importance and creates a need to be better than/more than, which drives more conflict and fuels self-doubt. By managing this state of mind, you can transform your perspective.
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So how does this relate to leadership? Well, we know that a fixed mindset of “this is just me” doesn’t serve us as leaders. Your ability to continue learning, growing, and using your leadership platform responsibly is directly related to your readiness to recognise, curate and manage your ego. It can be your biggest ally or worst enemy, depending on how you make friends with it! Here are some tips (based upon the work of Dr. Nicole LePera, The Holistic Psychologist) to get you started:
1. Observe the I
Become aware of what you say after the word “I” - this is your ego speaking. You’ve been repeating this for many years, so observing how you actually speak about yourself will be surprising, if not shocking at times.
The friendliest way to meet your ego is when it’s not triggered, so set an intention to observe it during one conversation each day and note the words you use after “I” – here are some prompts:
What was an adjective I used to describe myself?
Is that how I actually feel about myself?
Does that help or hinder my progress, and/or the progress of other people?
2. Be compassionately curious
Observing your emotions is a powerful way to establish a relationship with your ego. Be curious when you feel triggered (a strong reaction that feels bigger than the event to which it relates) then once the emotion subsides, take some time to consider:
What feeling/emotion did that experience evoke in me? e.g. I felt very angry/hurt when I submitted that great piece of work and didn't get a thank you.
What meaning did I attach to the event? e.g. It means I’m not valued/important/good enough.
Objectively question the meaning - “Is it true that I am not valued? What evidence do I have for or against this belief?”
3. Be kind and remove judgement
Doing this kind of work can often conjure up negative and painful realisations or emotions. Learning to be kind to yourself, and not judge what you find is difficult but very liberating. If you can be kind to yourself and accept yourself for who you are, then you can start to express yourself fully and openly and start to make choices about how you’d like to move forward. In turn, when you are kind to and accepting of yourself, you are then more willing to be accepting of others, their opinions, their ideas and their journey.
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What I’ve shared here barely scratches the surface of identifying with your sense of self, but with time, learning, practice and consistency you have the potential to redefine your approach to leadership. Understanding and managing the ego is about returning to your true nature - your childlike self - to avoid functioning in patterns that you haven’t consciously chosen. Ego work provides you with new opportunities to choose, to be the master creator of your world rather than living on auto pilot. The truth is that, as a leader, you can’t truly collaborate and support those around you, share your knowledge and innovate if your ego is threatened by that which is new or different.
That said, we don't want to kill off the ego, but rather to create the kind of distance from it that allows us to be honest and objective. Once we achieve this, we can start to make conscious and deliberate choices about our responses and actions, giving ourselves room to grow as leaders beyond the limits of our own pre-conditioned ideas.