The ego is only an illusion, but a very influential one. Letting the ego-illusion become your identity can prevent you from knowing your true self. —Wayne Dyer
In a recent article, “A New Model for Leadership Coaching” (Training magazine, April 28, 2021), we advocate an “Inside Out vs. Outside In” approach to leadership development. Our argument is that sustainable professional and personal growth stems from becoming more psychologically mature, which is more powerful than simple behavioral change. Only by gaining a deeper understanding of yourself and others can you collapse time and grow psycho-dynamically as much in four to five months as you would over the next 10 years.
The introspective journey to gain psychological maturity is singularly challenging. As coaches, we understand each person’s reality—both self-awareness and the perception of others—is influenced by individual belief systems, personality structure, life experience, and unconscious bias. People differ in their willingness and ability to step outside of their own perspective. Understanding and managing the ego is often a first step in pulling back the curtain to see who you really are. Only after you identify and acknowledge your own ego’s influence can you begin to lead others to do the same.
What Is the Ego?
The ego is the psyche’s trickster. It’s the wrong-minded attempt to perceive and project yourself as you wish to be, rather than as you are. To reinforce beliefs and overcome self-doubt, it opportunistically exploits situations to create praise for itself. The ego literally lives by comparisons. When you’re jealous, it’s your ego. When you interrupt and are a poor listener, it’s your ego. When you’re craving attention, it’s your ego.
The ego always comes from a place of fear; fear of not being admired, fear of losing power, fear of not being liked, or fear of making a mistake. Overcoming the ego and releasing fear is hard work. That’s why emancipation from the ego is all too rare. The ego may provide a false sense of confidence in a competitive and stress-filled world. But as the quote at the top of this article states, the ego is an illusion.
Regardless of a leader’s personality, when the ego is neutralized, we can confidently observe that the psyche is mature. Maturity occurs when you have deep enough self-awareness and self-knowledge that you are significantly less likely to unconsciously project your ego. Consequently, reality is seen with greater accuracy and clarity. This is the real goal of leadership development—being able to discern the truth and make good decisions because of your diminished ego projection and emotional maturity.
Let’s take an example of a leader who unconsciously projects their ego and how this eventually creates organizational dysfunction. Assume that I am an aggressive extrovert who needs to be the center of attention. I exhibit dominance by talking over others and cutting people off with forceful directness. So when I hire for my team, I unconsciously select two types of personalities. I select affable, non-assertive types who always agree with my position and people with dominant personalities who remind me of myself. Two outcomes that feed my ego now are assured. I’ll control those who are affable and non-assertive, and I’ll fuel competition among the dominants—competition I already know I can win.
Psychological immaturity and ego-driven decision-making carry significant organizational costs. In this example, polarized dysfunctionality exists around power; the team becomes hyper-competitive. A culture of mendacity is created; it’s a cesspool of immaturity in which valuable time is wasted on positional politics. The timid types line up to be close to power. This better allows me to exercise psychological control over the aggressive group. Now, instead of mature leadership, a dysfunctional dynamic exists.
The mature leader’s psyche has a legitimate need for a balanced ego. It’s not egotistical to exhibit a certain amount of dominance in order to direct others’ behavior. It’s not egotistical to be ambitious and aspire to senior leadership. It’s not egotistical to have self-confidence in your strengths and how you add strategic value. Companies want strong leaders who can develop and drive strategy, deliver value, and inspire a winning culture. It’s when the ego becomes the driving force in the perception of self-worth that its impact is acutely detrimental.
The 5 Ego Traps of Leaders
There are five foundational personality traits, known colloquially as the “Big Five” (open-mind, extroversion, agreeable, conscientious, emotional stability). Therefore, it naturally follows that the ego, reflected in personality, reveals itself in five broad ways, too. Because the ego always comes from a place of fear, each dominant personality trait contains a corresponding fear-based ego trap.
- Open-Minded personality structure: Ego-trap is the need to be superior. The fear is that your vision and big ideas will not provide the intellectual status you believe you are entitled to.
- Extroversion personality structure: Ego-trap is the need to be admired. The fear is not receiving the praise and recognition you feel you so richly deserve.
- Agreeable personality structure: Ego-trap is the need to be liked. The fear is not being included and that your collaborative intentions are not reciprocated.
- Conscientious personality structure: Ego-trap is the need to be correct. The fear is making a public mistake and not being perfect.
- Emotional Stability personality structure: Ego-trap is the need to win. The fear is that your judgment(s) won’t prevail—that you won’t succeed or come out ahead.
Each person has a unique path to becoming more maturely evolved, or put in another way, to neutralize the ego. This is because your psyche is partially a combination of your dominant personality traits, life experience, and belief systems. It is this energy that makes you completely different from any other human being. The leadership road to emotional maturity is life-long. But the goal of leadership development and coaching is to collapse time, i.e., to accelerate the maturation process.
The process of deep introspection is often threatening to the ego. Coaches take for granted that leaders, like everyone, have an innate fear of their unconscious. If the coach tries to probe too strongly or quickly, the ego energizes defense mechanisms. This often manifests in canceled appointments and a lack of engagement in the process.
4 Strategies to Help Leaders Overcome Ego Traps
- Utilize personality assessments. In the hands of a skilled coach, personality assessments, validated by the Big Five Personality Model, can reveal how someone’s strongest personality traits manifest in natural strengths. Help your client understand how their most powerful personality traits strongly influence their behavior and how they uniquely add strategic value. The ego trap to be overcome here is unconscious bias—having misperceptions of other personality traits and favoring a personality structure that reminds you of yourself. The result can be that you unconsciously build a team lacking the skills and diversity you really need. Encourage humility and a focus on the bigger context.
- When failure, disappointment, or poor results materialize, guide the person back to re-trace their decision-making. Where did the breakdown of inaccurate thinking occur? What perceptions that guided decision-making were later found to be unjustified? How did unrecognized fear manifest in their thought process? As a coach, can you identify when personality was unconsciously projected onto the environment to create an inaccurate perception? Examination and evaluation of difficult situations are critical. People begin to move forward psycho-dynamically when they ruefully realize and then acknowledge the negative impact of the ego.
- Create an atmosphere that fosters authenticity and vulnerability. A mindset of defenselessness is powerful. The honest dialog begins when people drop defensive shields and openly acknowledge areas of development. Coaching should help a person understand who they are when they’re at their best. Beyond skills and job function, what special and unique way does someone contribute? As important as strength-based coaching is identifying and acknowledging destructive ego-driven behavior. People can be relatively unaware of the negative impact of their actions. Maturity grows when you take control of your ego by deciding when and how it manifests.
- Help people visualize how they can use their strengths for the benefit of others. The more mature one is, the more they wish to teach. We call this giving away your strengths. Authentically using your strengths to help somebody be more successful provides a sense of positive self-regard based upon humility. Ego maturity accelerates when people use their talent to help others in their career journey. As Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Mature leaders understand that success is not just about individual achievement and power but also about responsibility for and to the organizational big picture. Maturity is grounded, thoughtful, and reflective. Maturity always means excellent listening skills. Mature leaders are great mentors who create authentic cultures where people thrive.
Identifying and managing ego traps is key to advancing psychological maturity. Neutralizing the ego begins with reflecting on ego-driven behavior and distinguishing between when the ego is serving you and when it is getting in your way.
The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist. —Eckhart Tolle