It is almost a fixed pattern. As soon as leaders get a little bit of power or success, there is a fair chance that their ego will get corrupted.
The ego represents the way we want to be perceived by others and the way we perceive ourselves. In contrast, the identity of a person stands for his or her authentic self, the way we really are. Think about the ego and the identity of a person as two balloons. When a person has a balanced personality, both balloons are about the same size. It’s okay when the ego is a bit bigger than our true identity.
Most of us hope to be perceived as being a bit more intelligent, humorous, or beautiful than we really are. The problem emerges when the ego-balloon starts to grow out of proportion in comparison with our true identity. This is what frequently happens when people get into leadership positions. In many cases, I’ve observed that a little power or success is enough to blow up someone’s ego drastically.
Once this happens, a particular kind of behavior starts to show. Leaders with an overblown ego become more and more defensive when receiving feedback. They take every opportunity to rationalize their own behavior, even when this behavior is out of line. A leader I know was yelling at the receptionist at his company the other day because she didn’t order the right kind of sandwich for his lunch. It didn’t bother him that others could observe the scene.
After the incident, we sat together and, still excited by what happened he told me, “Can you believe this, I work 16 hours a day to make sure all these people have a job. However, if I make a simple request like ordering a sandwich for me, they can’t even make the effort to see that I get what I asked for. In another organization she would have been fired for this.” The more they start to rationalize their behavior, the less rational their explanations become. A leader in another organization wrote in the company regulations that women in his company should shave their legs. Even for this he had a perfect, and in his opinion legitimate, “rational” reason.
Because of their almost constantly defensive behavior, these leaders receive less and less honest feedback from colleagues and employees. Unfortunately, they often mistake the lack of corrective feedback as a sign that they are on the right track. You can hear them say: “I only got positive responses about the speech I gave yesterday.” This adds more air to their ego balloon, and things start to get even more out of hand.
When the size of the ego further expands and the difference between the ego and the true identity becomes wider, these leaders feel increasing pressure to keep their inflated ego intact. Unless they can get out of this self-imposed situation, they have basically four possible options. One is to become highly competitive and try to constantly outperform others. The second option, when they can’t keep up with the competitive pace (and eventually none of them can), is to talk in a demeaning manner about others and to ridicule the work of their peers and competitors. A third option is to search for “new ideas” on the Internet, copy these ideas and then claim them as their own. If this is not sufficient, some of them, unfortunately, start to use means that could bring them in confrontation with the legal authorities. It’s as if they become ego addicts, they will do literally anything to keep up appearances.
Another indication that a leader may have an overinflated ego is that he or she starts to crave recognition. As long as they receive a lot of attention from colleagues, peers, employees, the media, etc., they feel safe (for a while). It’s then that they tend to repeat the things they did in the past or tell the same stories (e.g. jokes) over and over. Each time they expect to receive positive reactions or even admiration.
It’s an important challenge for every leader to maintain the balance between their true identity and their ego. Success means that they receive applause, attention, and admiration from others. To enjoy one’s success and at the same time resist the temptation of developing an over-inflated sense of self-importance is not an easy task.
So far, I haven’t found the magic formula that can explain why some leaders can keep their ego under control and others can’t. However, each time I’ve worked with leaders who have control over their ego, I’ve observed so far that there are two main variables that play an important role. The first is that they’ve kept open at least one important “feedback channel” that can provide direct, honest, and clear feedback about themselves.
It’s the person who, if necessary, will tell the leader what he or she doesn’t want to hear. This person has good intentions and gives this feedback because he or she cares about them. It’s often their partner in life and/or an external coach or mentor that provides this valuable information. In contrast, most of the time when I’m confronted with leaders with over-inflated egos, they are surrounded by people who always tell them what they want to hear. Often it is because the leader has become so intimidating and defensive that people have stopped giving him or her honest feedback.
The second variable for leaders who keep their ego under control is that they use the feedback they receive with the intention to grow as a person. They have an intrinsic motivation to change if necessary. If this kind of feedback is provided to a manipulative leader, they will use the information to become better at exploiting others. If you are a coach or mentor to such leaders, you might want to consider this.
If leaders fail to control their ego, they risk losing it all. A lack of necessary and clear feedback increases the chances that they will make the wrong business decisions. On a personal level, because of the way they treat others, they risk becoming isolated from their social network. They are surrounded by “followers” only as long as they are able to keep up the image of success. They might have many friends on Facebook, but very few friends in the real world.
That’s why I hope (without any feelings of pleasure) that young leaders who suffer from an over-inflated ego will experience failure at an early stage in their career. If this happens, and if they are guided by the right people, they will learn important lessons that will help them to become much better leaders. I say this because I have now seen several times how devastating it is for leaders when they retire and only then realize that they never really had true followers. It is a sad moment in a person’s life if they learn that they’ve had an over-inflated ego all their lives, and people have tolerated them only because of their status and power.