One of the complexities of an effective leadership style is that there is no magic formula although we recognise it when we see it. There are effective leaders who are selfless humble servants and visionaries who are able to manage their egos to make room for other people and other strategies. In contrast at the other end of the scale there are those bordering on being narcissistic, self absorbed and arrogant, whose energy and utter self-belief carries all before them. In between there are many other effective styles too.
In mental toughness terms as a leader it is important to be outcome focused with a healthy dose of empathy. This mindset enables you to power through all kinds of interference towards your goal but still be connected enough with your people to take them with you.
I believe that with every leadership style a strong ego is an important prerequisite but that your long term success comes from effectively managing how you mask this ego, so as not to disenfranchise a large number of your team.
I was therefore interested to read this post by author S.Chris Edmonds who also believes that effective leaders need a healthy ego but suggests that it’s part of a process rather than an inherent trait. This post was first published by the excellent Fast Company magazine.
Edmonds explains “Your ego is an asset and devaluing your ego stunts your development as a leader and makes it harder to champion a healthy, inspirational work culture”. He continues by suggesting, “embracing your ego doesn’t automatically make you a raging narcissist, either. Instead, it can give you a personal advantage that, if you harness it appropriately, translates into a competitive advantage for you and your organization. Your ego is a good thing. You came into this world with it and it provides the essential framework through which you understand the world and your place within it.”
There are many different views on the role of ego from many different experts but I like the framework created by researchers Le Xuan and Hy Jane Loevinger who suggest that our egos help us move through the following four stages:
- Self-centeredness (“What do I think is important?”)
- Group-centeredness (“How can I fit in to what the group thinks is important?”)
- Independence (“I’m the leader of my own destiny”)
- Group affiliation (“How can I, amid constant change and disruption, become self-actualized while also demonstrating to others how to make their own way?”)
The fourth stage is characterized by comfort with ambiguity and the innate complexity of real people and situations. This progression suggests that ego isn’t a malevolent “thing” after all , that in fact its just a process.
And it’s entirely different from egotism, narcissism, arrogance, and the other traits with which we tend to hastily conflate it.
In practice, “having an ego” simply means understanding the worldview through which you act—in order to get your own needs met as well as the needs of others. And that, of course, is in every leader’s job description.
Take that fourth stage of ego development, about becoming “self-actualized while also demonstrating to others how to make their own way.” Isn’t that what leadership is all about?
It’s dualistic: Yes, you must serve and support and help and encourage. And to do that, you must be compassionate and humble. But before you can do any of those things, you need to develop confidence in yourself—not arrogance, but well justified faith in your own abilities.
That takes discovering how you—uniquely—can support both yourself and other people to go through the same process, to “self-actualize” in reaction to all the messiness of business and life.
In another view, the veteran leadership researcher Deborah Rowland commented in the Harvard Business Review;
“Leadership development must start by working on the inner game. It’s very hard for leaders to have courageous conversations . . . until they’ve built their systemic capacity to view disturbances as transformational, not dysfunctional.” Or in other words, until they’ve gotten to know and supported themselves properly.
Can you imagine anything on earth more appropriately pride-inspiring than reaching this level of individual development, not just as a leader but as a person? Ego isn’t the antithesis of “servant leadership” or the enemy of an inspiring, engaging, productive work culture that you and your team can be proud of. It’s the underpinning of it.
And experts who’ve studied how the most effective work cultures develop, claim that a truly purpose-driven company is made up of people who see what the company does as supporting things they already personally believe in. Without that alignment, it all falls apart.
So, in summarising my view, I think leaders need an ego to be able to lead and as Deborah Rowland says an ego helps leaders to view “disturbances as transformational, not dysfunctional.” You need an ego to overcome the constant resistance that you face – you just need to keep it as a positive force and not be tempted by the dark side.
For more on leadership style development contact us.