Just the other day I watched a disturbing news clip showing a Newark, New Jersey police officer overstepping his bounds, showing exceedingly bad judgment and excessive force when dealing with a TV news reporter's cameraman. It was a very public example of what can happen when one's authority and ego are not kept in check.
The story was ironic. A CBS reporter was covering a march by a group of parents trying to raise people's awareness about increasing neighborhood violence, with many of the marchers being parents whose children had been killed in street violence. But after the march, a police officer lost his cool and roughed up the reporter's cameraman.
How do we know? The camera was running and the incident was caught on film. The officer put a chokehold on the man after he was cuffed, saying "I can do whatever I want." That is, until a city councilwoman in Newark, who was coming out of a nearby church, told the officer he was out of line.
Finding the 'ego balance'
Ego is a funny thing. It's a vital part of our drive for success, but when anyone in positions of authority start thinking they're invincible (be they police officers, politicians, or workplace supervisors at any level), it's time for a reality check. People in positions of authority can empower or demoralize an environment, depending on what role they give their egos.
Here's a philosophy I like and advise leaders to consider. Build your social leadership skills instead of relying on your positional authority. After all, how much respect do we give people who rely on the phrase "because I said so" to motivate us?
People parading their positional authority with an air of superiority rarely command the admiration they think they're getting.
If you're in a position of authority, it's probably wise to get some feedback about your management/leadership style. Just be sure to get it from people who aren't going to blow smoke for you. Find people who will be straightforward and frank about your style.
If you report to someone, ask his or her opinion about how you're coming across. It's not a sign of weakness, it's healthy and mature to confront any issues that might be (or become) stumbling blocks.
In addition to getting feedback, managers and leaders should also pay attention to other factors that may indicate an out-of-check ego: High turnover, poor communication flow, and poor morale, among others.
Finding balance can be tough for top leaders
Keeping egos in check can be especially difficult for people at the top of an organization. In his book "Inside the White House", Ronald Kessler interviewed many people from the permanent White House staff, giving us an "insiders" view of many 20th century Presidents.
One common thread was that Presidents often lose touch with reality because they get so separated from it. The power of the office is seductive. It not only influences the President, it influences people around the President to morph into yes-men.
According to Kessler, even hard-nosed US senators have become like putty in the presence of a President. The result? Nobody challenges the President, and his decisions lose the benefit of multiple viewpoints.
With that as an example, those at the top of any organization must be careful to stay in touch and not squelch or brush off dissention. If people disagree with a leadership decision, it might be for good reason. Listening to and seriously considering all sides of an issue is good decision-making practice. This shouldn't change for people at the top.
This is not to say that human ego is bad. Again, egos are vital for success. Without egos, people wouldn't seek positions of leadership and teams wouldn't strive to be their best. But when a person becomes convinced of his or her own superiority, then his or her ego becomes a dangerous detriment to an organization's effectiveness, efficiency, and esprit de corps.
At careermag.com, in an article written by Tim Connor entitled In Management, Your Ego is a Performance-Killer, we're told that "ego has cost Corporate America more money than any other single factor." I would agree.
Connor also points out that "your ego is not part of your DNA or genes. It is man-made and can be un-made or controlled if you choose".
Some facts that will help
For anyone with authority, keeping one's ego in check is as equally vital for success as having the ego itself. Here are some facts: Yes, you can be wrong, and yes, your subordinates can be smarter than you.
Also, yes, you can reverse bad decisions, and no, you don't have to know everything. It's also healthy to exercise patience, share the limelight, and invest your time in others.
Bottom line: Positions of authority can be dangerous if one's ego steps up to center stage. It's better to keep the organization's goals at center stage and focus your efforts on helping others as they work toward achieving those goals.