Ego & My Leadership
The relationship between self-worth, ego, and leadership
Something that I’ve noticed is that it is getting easier and easier to let go of what I’d describe as “ego” based behaviours in the way I lead, and the results are noticeable (and positive!!). But first, a couple sentences of background for any readers who don’t know me: I lead a global operations team for a high-growth brand in the outdoor industry. I’ve been in leadership roles for over six years, and love to build healthy and collaborative teams that tackle hard problems. In a recent conversation with a mentee some things came up that reminded me of my observations around ego and leadership, and I was inspired to write down a few of my reflections.
It seems a bit paradoxical, but my key to letting go of ego isn’t thinking less of myself, or less about myself. In fact, it is from thinking more of myself. As my self-worth increases, my ego decreases. It helped to get older. To start to feel the meaning of the word “grounded,” not just understand its theoretical definition. To feel more confident, with less time spent testing ideas from other people, and more time iterating and drawing from my past experience. On days or in moments when a true sense of self-worth is present, there is no need to prove anything to myself or others. (More on self-worth in another post.)
Here are a few of my favourite observations:
1. Sharing appreciation to my team and colleagues. I love my team. I’m inspired by them, proud of them, proud to work with them. And yet, with all that being said, sometimes it can still be hard to unabashedly share appreciation. Maybe it’s that there is always something to improve — and it’s my job to see that and hold a high standard? Or is it the thought that when lifting someone up “do I look worse?” Does it allow an insecurity that I’m not good, or as good, to bubble up? Or perhaps it’s scary because it forces us to reckon with the idea that maybe the feeling of appreciation isn’t mutual. Remembering that we are valuable, and have accomplished many things to be proud of to get to where we are helps put all these silly thoughts on the sideline.
2. Saying goodbye to perfection, and iterating instead. I’m a recovered perfectionist. I’ve changed my definition of “greatness,” and perfection is not a part of it. Greatness is contextual, and it doesn’t default to a standard I’ve made up in my head or a comparison (something I also need to remind myself of when imposter syndrome is washing over me). So I love the phrase “progress not perfection.” Self-worth helps the iterative mindset, because a fear of judgement over “imperfect” results isn’t so scary anymore. I know what I’m capable of, and why I made the decisions I did, even if “they” don’t — judge away.
3. Helping others shine. Celebrating other people’s success can feel hard because of jealousy, insecurity, or a host of other ego driven emotions. But it’s my job as a leader, and it also feels great. Plus, when it’s a team member, it does reflect positively on me as their leader (ego can make that harder to see). Maybe one of the feelings that can come up is jealousy that I am not getting attention, or the recognition for my work that I am craving. But it’s okay if no one is helping me shine today, I’m shiny enough already just being in this position of power! Here’s the other thought… I think it can feel like appreciation and recognition are scarce resources. As silly as it sounds writing it down, it can feel like if I recognize you, then there’s less recognition “left over” for me to potentially get 🤞🏼. This makes no logical sense, but I think my subconscious has defaulted to this kind of scarcity math before. Celebration should spark and inspire more celebration in a virtuous cycle, and if it doesn’t, the culture needs some work.
4. Not “adding value” to my team’s ideas. There’s a great article by Marshall Goldsmith in the Harvard Business Review about the idea of thinking twice before “adding value” to a team member’s idea. Now that I’m aware of it, I realize it happens all the time. A team member brings up an idea, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? “I already thought of that a couple of years ago and this is what I concluded.” Or “yes, but what about this aspect of the situation you haven’t considered yet?” Sure, these insights might be true, but are they worth it? This is the argument of the article, that the minor efficiency or quality gained by “helping” your team member in that first moment may not actually be worth the inadvertent decrease in ownership and commitment to their idea. And yes, ego… There are many good, fair, smart, well-intentioned reasons why I would want to “add value” as a leader in this situation, but let’s face it, one of them is probably that I want to sound smart, to be recognized for my past work, or prove my experience. Think twice.
5. Enjoy being wrong. If I zoom out, push emotions aside, and muse on the idea of being wrong, it’s pretty easy to just see how positive and fascinating being wrong is: A stretching of my perspective and an evolution of my opinions; A chance to listen and absorb someone else’s idea and embrace it; An opportunity to learn. As my friend Catherine Legros says, it’s such an overlooked and powerful positive quality in a person. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with people who can enjoy being wrong? But it is hard because our ego wants us to be right, and is scared of being wrong. So I must remind myself just how right I am a lot of the time, and how great it is to be someone with the characteristic of being “good at being wrong.”
6. That problem is not always my problem. When was the last time I heard about a problem and took it on? Or took it personally? My ego wants me to believe I’m in control and it’s all my responsibility, or my fault. But when I shift to using my leadership presence to allow problems to unearth, and create a space to sit with them, and support my team to solve them when the time is right – now that is powerul, and more scalable. In a great old Harvard Business Review article William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass guide us not to “take the monkey” and encourage our team members to bring ideas for solutions instead – these are wise words.
During waves of self-worth, my ego responds and slips away, and my leadership changes for the better. It’s not constant, but it’s noticeable, and luckily it’s a virtuous circle.