To Lead Well, First Quieten Your Ego

To Lead Well, First Quieten Your Ego

What characterises a great leader? Ask most people and they’ll talk about charisma, vision and self-confidence; about people who are bold and strong-willed. Driven to make something new, to reinvent a company or a country, they constantly challenge conventions, never slowed by doubt or criticism.

These are the people who tend to be appointed as CEOs – especially in times of turbulence or when organisations are thought to be failing. Good at self-promotion, they are great in interviews.

Often, that process produces excellent CEOs. But sometimes it turns out that candidates weren’t just confident, rather they were arrogant and entitled. Not so much bold, they were simply impulsive. Lacking empathy, people like these go on to exploit others without compunction. Ignoring the advice of experts, they treat those who hold views that differ from their own with contempt and hostility. Above all, they demand personal loyalty.

Too often their absurdities only emerge in the wake of scandal. Take the CEO of one of the world’s largest retail banks who frequently used a company helicopter to fly guests to lunch at an expensive island restaurant while insisting that middle-managers, out and about on bank business, always eat their own lunch at the nearest local branch to save on expenses. That bank very publicly crashed and had to be saved by taxpayers to avert a financial crisis.

Or take the head of a car company who spent well over half a million Euros hosting a party at the Palace of Versailles supposedly to honour various partners who had supported the company, although the event coincided with his own 60thbirthday and only two employees appeared on a guest list that was heavy on his personal friends and family.

How do leaders come to believe that such behaviour is acceptable? That they are somehow entitled?

American Psychiatric Association, in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder in these terms:

It is “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in childhood and characterized by five or more of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talent and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can be understood only by, or should associate with, other special high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive, takes advantage of others to achieve his or her ends.
  7. Lacks empathy is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant or haughty behaviours or attitudes.”

In a paper entitled “Transformational Leader or Narcissist”, O’Reilly and Chatman describe the ways in which narcissistic leaders destroy organizations from within. When the person at the top of an organization is malignant and self-serving, they say, unethical behaviour cascades throughout the organization and becomes legitimized. That very quickly destroys value and makes life intolerable for employees.

Given the risk of that, what are we to do?

Part of the answer lies in the way in which we talk about leadership itself and the ways in which we go about developing leaders.

We need to talk about leadership in a different kind of way. Rather than speaking of leaders as somehow special, imbued with the glamour associated with their position, we need to speak of leadership more as simply a task. A job that needs to be done and one for which a person can be trained. And a key part of that training is learning to spot and overcome the early signs of ego-inflation.

As a part of their training at business schools or on other leadership development programs, potential leaders should learn of the pitfalls of self-aggrandisement, how it can corrode leadership effectiveness, and they should be given specific tools to help them quieten their own egos.

In our next post we will describe what some of those tools might be and how we can all go about applying them in our lives.

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