“Don’t you believe what you’ve seen or you’ve heard,
Ego… is not a… dirty word.”
IF you’re a middle-aged Australian you’ll recognize that line from the Skyhooks hit of 1975. If you’re not, it’s still a good point.
Your Ego is you. Why would you denigrate it? Yet we hear it all the time. “Put your ego aside.” “There’s no room for ego on this team.” “Your ego is your enemy.”
“Ego” means “I” in Latin. The American Heritage Dictionary provides a few definitions:
“The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves”
“In psychoanalysis, the division of the psyche that is conscious, most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality.”
“An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.”
“Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem.”
#1, #2, and #4 all point to Ego being a good thing. We all need a distinct sense of self, should consciously control our thoughts and behavior, and should take pride in being the best we can possibly be, that is, we should earn self-esteem.
I suspect #3 is in there because that’s the widely-accepted meaning. It’s misleading. I would like to suggest to you that those who show “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” – those who are conceited or ego-centric or bombastic or braggarts – do not have a “big ego”, they have a little one. Or, stated more accurately, they have a non-self-sufficient ego; a weak ego.
Those behaviors that have come to be associated with a “big ego”, all stem from insecurity; from a poor sense of self. They are all (futile and self-defeating) attempts to build self-esteem by trying to make oneself look better/stronger/richer/bigger/more powerful/etc. in the eyes of others. People who behave like this are constantly looking for affirmation of their worth outside of themselves, which cannot be done.
The person of self-sufficient ego, on the other hand, measures their self worth by their own behavior and accomplishments, not on the opinions of others. That’s not to say that positive feedback from someone you admire and respect is not welcome; of course it is. But it should never be the reason that you love your self.
What has all this got to do with leadership, you may ask. Well, let me ask you:
How many times have you heard a sports commentator say something like, “Wow, Markowitz was really selfless there, he put his ego away for the sake of the team”.
Just about every game you watch. And it’s bunk. It rides on the premise that Markowitz’s best interests are somehow different to the interests of the team he’s playing for. They better not be. Helping the team by committing whatever act was deemed “selfless” was in the best interest of the team AND in the best interest of Markowitz. In other words, his act was selfish, and rightly so. It was born out of a self-sufficient ego. An ego not trying to big-note itself at the expense of the team. An ego secure in its own value. An ego committed to the team.
If you lead a team, remember this. This is what the fancy term, “Aligning individual and team objectives” is talking about. When all the people in your team believe that their best interests are served by fostering the best interests of the team, that’s when you get real Teamwork.
That bromide, “There’s No “I” in T E A M”, is wrong. There is nothing but “I”s in any team. A team IS it’s individuals.
Don’t ask your people to be “selfless” for the good of the team. Instead, create a culture where everyone is vested in the team’s successful outcomes. Then you can rely on their respective, self-interested effort to move the team forward.
And here’s a bonus tip. The key to hiring people with great attitude is to look for people with a self-sufficient ego. They are: Confident, but not brash. Opinionated, but not defensive. Show initiative, but take direction too. Speak well, but not too much, and listen equally well.
A strong, self-sufficient ego = Quiet Confidence.
And, as a reward for making it this far, here’s Skyhooks, with “Ego Is Not A Dirty Word“.