Who's Running My Life? Me or My Ego?
Most of the traits of our egos have been formed by strategies that we have developed unconsciously to keep us safe. In this post we look at the positive effects of these ego traits, as well as the shadow side of how they can negatively impact our leadership roles. We also look at some new developments in leadership that are designed to support us to operate from beyond our egos.
By Thor Olafsson
Thor Olafsson is author of the book BEYOND EGO: THE INNER COMPASS OF CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP. He’s an award-winning leadership coach and consultant with over 20 years of global experience.
Read time: 3 minutes.
Most of us would like to believe that we’re free thinking individuals who are in control of our lives and the way that we live them. Ask any “free” human being in the Western world “Who’s running the show?” and most would automatically (and often proudly) answer, “I am.” But although many of us are free to make choices, including where we work, who we love and how we live, we are still only collectively just scratching the surface of our understanding of how many of those choices are governed by the ego.
When we talk about ego, we’re not referring to it in the Freudian sense. Nor are we demonizing it or viewing it as the enemy. In many teachings over the past few decades, the ego has been viewed as something within us that needs to be defeated. So one of the first things myself and my team do when we are working with leaders around the world is show them how the ego is actually a protective mechanism that is designed to keep them safe. If your ego is at the forefront, it’s because it has been doing an incredible job of strategizing based on the life experiences you have had so far.
How the Ego Forms
Much of the development of the ego can be attributed to the survival mechanism in the brain. At any one time, there are two seemingly ‘competing’ forces within us. The first is our fight for survival, which is built into our brains at a subconscious level. The second is our consciousness, which is dedicated to our growth and expansion. It goes without saying that if we want to be conscious leaders then we need to spend a significant amount of our time developing the conscious elements within us. But to do so, we have to acknowledge that many of our unconscious, ego based behaviors were formed in childhood and became fundamental to our character. We have to look deeply within to discover the parts of us where ego is running the show.
This includes the context in which you were raised—for example, if you had a strict, overbearing father. It also includes any specific experiences that shaped your sense of safety, such as a specifically traumatic event with your peers. These behaviors require you to create strategies that often keep you safe at the time, and that you repeat because they are effective (at least to a certain extent), and over time they become ingrained behaviors, which have little to do with your true, ‘conscious’ self. Pretty soon, the ego is running the show, and often you don’t even know it.
The Impact Ego Has on Leadership
For many of the leaders we work with, these strategies have formed a huge part of their success. If we look at success from a purely mechanical point of view, many of the leadership traits that motivate others to get things done can be found in the traits of the ego.
However, there are a great number of downsides to operating from the ego in leadership, and as we move more and more towards a humanistic approach to management, we start to see how many of these old traits are counterproductive in the long run. Complaining, wanting to be right and needing to be in control are some of the downsides of the ego running the show. In a leadership context we also see leaders who govern with fear, creating a scarcity-driven mindset which causes managers to lead with a “carrot-and-stick” mentality. This, in turn, creates working cultures that are built upon fear.
An ego-based leader is usually ‘right’ and their methods will tend to mean that employees don’t speak up and hold back on sharing ideas and giving opinions. This in turn will mean that that same leader:
- Complains about the lack of communication and collaboration between business units, unaware that their own leadership approach is causing our employees’ to operate from fear.
- Creates teams that perform to reach silo-based goals, often motivated by the fear of the consequences of what will occur if they don’t.
- Creates a culture that prioritizes business targets, divides people into silos and even pitches our employees against each other, and pushes for short-term gains, rather than longer term wins.
Leading Beyond Ego
Despite conventional, ego-based leadership being the most predominant approach for decades, a new type of humanistic leadership is being called forward. In contrast to the old methods, these new leaders create psychological safety for their employees and show the conscious traits of compassion and vulnerability in the workplace too. There are whole bodies of research around how these approaches are way more effective for long-term goals over short-term outcomes. The challenge is that there is no shortcut for leaders to get there, or no single management course that we can go on that will enable us to implement these tools overnight. The truth is, we have to have looked deeply within ourselves and examined the different parts of us where ego is running the show, before we can start to implement these more humanistic approaches with our teams. We have to be willing to ask ourselves, time and time again, “Who’s running my life? Me or my ego?” and we have to be willing to dig deep, examine our patterns, pull our existing strategies apart before moving into leading with humility and compassion. This is the work of the leader that is willing to run their own life, beyond the mechanisms of the ego.