Ego – our thoughts
Super ego – our unconscious drives
Id – the referee between the two
I dutifully memorized these distinctions well enough to pass the test, but never found them particularly insightful or useful.
Fast-forward to the present. In my work with organizational leaders, I’ve come up with a few classifications of “ego” reflecting different combinations of competence, confidence and self-interest:
Low ego – Someone with low ego tends to have low self-confidence, poor self-esteem, or a lack of ambition. Sometimes the esteem issue is rooted in harsh, critical even abusive environments growing up. Sometimes it’s related to lack of competence. In any case, I seldom see low ego types leading organizations. They tend to shun the spotlight and hide their weaknesses. Their career strategies often emphasize politics over substance. They also seem prone to blaming, probably to avoid having their incompetence revealed. The work of someone with low ego is to find and tap their genuine greatness, and to develop true competence in skills pertaining to their work.
Inflated ego – The poster child for this ego level is Donald Trump. Leaders with inflated egos are all about “me, me, me.” (See also, “narcissism.”) They are pretty easy to spot in organizations. They seem ruthlessly ambitious. They tend to “throw people under the bus” to avoid being blamed for mistakes or bad decisions. As they get promoted they forget “the little people.” While they might pretend to be good team players, their real agenda is to gain personal glory. They resent anyone who gets elevated ahead of them. They may be the “smartest guy in the room,” or act as if they are. In the process, they disparage or dismiss the views of others. This does not endear them to their teams, or create strong cadres of followers.
The development work for someone with an inflated ego is difficult – it is to help them embrace a more humble and caring attitude. Usually, it takes a cosmic two-by-four to bring forth an appetite for such dramatic change. The most common humbling events include divorce, alienation from children, unexpected job loss, or health challenges. It’s less painful if the leader with excessive ego recognizes his or her hubris and takes steps to embrace humility and empathy for others.
Healthy ego – Working with a leader possessing a healthy ego is a pleasure. Such leaders are confident in expressing views, listening to others and making decisions. They are humble enough to admit there is much to learn. Rather than trying to hide their own ignorance (low ego), or bluster through a knowledge deficit (inflated ego), they instead come from a place of curiosity. They appreciate those whose knowledge exceeds their own. They might adopt the posture of a student (beginner’s mind) as they seek to learn new subject matter. Or they might simply trust and empower others who have greater knowledge. Leaders with a healthy ego are not shy about negotiating for the better pay and benefits that usually accompany someone at their level of success. At the same time, money and status are not their top priorities.
To be candid, I have experienced only limited success coaching the first two ego levels. Those with low ego can be intimidated by the prospect of a coach, afraid that their incompetence will be revealed, perhaps even ridiculed. For them, the discomfort of change may be too threatening.
Those with excessive egos rarely even consider using a coach, unless they view the coach as a status symbol. In such cases, they may want the coach to do nothing more than observe and acknowledge their greatness. Those with a healthy ego are open and curious with respect to coaching, and are happy to try new ideas that might bring greater success.
Once a person has established a strong, healthy, balanced ego, the next stage of development seems somewhat paradoxical. It is to give up the ego, putting the needs of others ahead of one’s selfish needs. I would call this stage of the process ego-lessness.
More about that in the next post…