How to Make Your Ego Work for You as a Leader

Ego is your sense of self. Everyone has one, and it’s critical to self-esteem. But when your ego gets too big, we call that narcissism. If you know you have a big ego, you can avoid the problems related to narcissism with self-development.

Just between us… Admit it. You’re a pretty great leader. You’re constantly looking for ways to improve your skills (after all, you read this newsletter). You’ve got a vision for where your organization needs to go, and a plan to help your team get there. Sure, some might say you have a bit of an ego, but let’s be honest: you’re usually just right.

And even if you did have an ego—not that you do, of course—ego isn’t all bad! It drives individual achievement and the will to power, and in fact, it’s one of the key characteristics that tips people off that you are leadership material. (Which, obviously, you are.)

Ego is your sense of self. Everyone has one, and it’s critical to self-esteem. But when your ego gets too big, we call that narcissism. Narcissists have high self-regard that comes off as arrogance and entitlement, paired with a lack of concern for others and a constant need to present themselves in the best possible light.

A big ego can be great for leadership. Egotists display the confidence we like to see in leaders, have a grand vision that inspires people, and are great at bringing creative projects to fruition. Scoring somewhat high on narcissism also helps women take on leadership roles by reducing role conflict—the internal and external pressure to act stereotypically “feminine” even when the situation calls for acting like a (stereotypically male) boss.

Of course, ego comes with a price: narcissists try to discredit or bully anyone who threatens them, and any number of perceived slights or disagreements, large or small, can threaten them. This feeds fear, information hoarding, and leads to a poor culture, and ultimately, leads to derailing your career.

The good news is, if you know you have a big ego—again, not naming any names!—you can avoid these problems with self-development. Learning to think beyond your own interests, laughing at yourself, and gaining a wider perspective can put you in the category of “productive narcissists.” In particular:

  • Develop a multifaceted identity. As Colin Powell put it, “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” You ≠ your job. You are not your market position. And you’re certainly not only as good as your last project.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. One of the biggest hazards of having a big ego is that people stop telling you the truth and instead tell you what you want to hear. Short-circuit that by developing awareness about it. Invite people to bring you the truth, good or bad, and when they do, slow down and respond, rather than just react.
  • Checks and balances. Design your organization so that culture and relationships matter, not just financial returns. Think independent review boards, rather than concentration of power in one person.
Published January 21, 2020

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