Too much or too little, ego undermines leadership

Sep 19 2013 by Cindy Wahler Print This Article

For many senior executives, acing the interview process is a slam dunk. Firms train leaders for this very purpose. Candidates for senior roles get to practice responding to the typical behavioral questions asked by employers. They are also provided with a list of "smart" questions to ask their potential employer. Using video, they can also perfect their body language, posture, eye contact and voice tonality. If there are any questionable gaps in their career trajectory, candidates learn how to explain those away neatly. By the end of this process the candidate emerges as a shiny new specimen, trained to wow, seduce and court any new employer.

Of course, what's missing here is substance. The slick presentation and schmooze can easily fool an organization as to an individual's real character. Egoists are masters at exploiting this. They know how to work the room. They know full well that they are great salespeople.

As a leadership coach, I had one client who was terminated from three different employers prior to landing on my doorstep. The reasons for the terminations were all the same. He wasn't "rightsized", but was undermined by his blustery disregard for others. Alienating his team and peers, he stood alone. What's more, he had the hubris to believe that he could single handily work around this and create transformational change. But Hercules he wasn't.

How this could have happened three times is perplexing. But don't we too often hear how companies have not done their due diligence and failed to discover (or have even ignored) past questionable behavior or key issues around integrity?

I quickly realized that this individual was simply non-coachable. He did reach out to me, but only to express how his last organization was just not ready for change. As predicted, no lessons learned.

Extreme examples like these are a reminder why leadership assessments ought to be a key part of the recruitment process for senior roles. Assessments predict behavior. And this creates awareness for both parties of what they can focus on to further enhance success. Equally important, there are certain personality traits that are part of an individual's DNA which can never be altered, no matter how much coaching, 360 feedback, or performance management is offered.

Ego can be a damaging leadership derailer. It leads to narcissistic behavior and a myopic sense of overwhelming omnipotence. It brings with it an inability to relate to other stakeholders, develop teams or build partnerships.

I met with one potential client who explained how excited she was about the coaching engagement, which she saw as a great opportunity to work on her leadership. I asked her share with me her insights regarding what she thought our focus might be. She replied that she could always be a better leader. I then probed her ability to excel at all the behaviors we look for in great leaders. She spoke eloquently, highlighting her talents and skill set within each of the core capabilities and leaving no stone unturned.

Far from being encouraged by this, I soon realized that her objective for coaching was to simply explore her own greatness. I can only imagine how her peers and direct reports would feel having to work with her on a daily basis.

We cannot simply dial back a vast ego because it stems from deep-rooted feelings of insecurity. Grandiosity is an over compensation for this insecurity. So proving their iconic value becomes the raison d'etre of the overly self-possessed leader. Appoint someone like this in a key role and the cost to the organization can reach the high six figures. The culture around this leader will be demoralizing and come to a grinding halt. This is why executive assessments are paramount.

On the other end of the continuum, someone with too little ego will not instill confidence or provide the necessary stewardship and direction. These leaders are either plagued with self-doubt or come across as too meek and mild to bring about transformational change. They may flip-flop, have difficult defining boundaries and be reluctant to challenge or engaging in healthy debate. They live the organization's cultural values of respect and integrity but have little influence. These leaders are often described as 'nice' - as though that's a defining leadership capability. Nice is good, but it's far from adequate to make a mark or to hit a home run.

So organizations need to know where a leader sits on the ego spectrum. The good news for those with too little ego is that coaching can have an impact. The important question that an organization must ask is what time line they require. Is this leader required to hit the ground running? 'Nice' will buy you a round of coffee or a feel-good off site. But conflict, challenge and constructive debate will likely cause a leader with not enough ego to fold their cards, go home and cry.

Once again, an executive assessment can measure ego. The right amount allows leaders to drive change within the context of building relationships and fostering true partnerships. But if a leader's ego gets in the way of them winning the hearts and minds of their peers and team members, a foundation of respect and loyalty will be glaringly absent.

Ego – either in abundance or in short supply - will fail an organization. Smart corporations recognize the import of identifying and assessing this as a central component of the talent planning process.

About The Author

Cindy Wahler
Cindy Wahler

A Psychologist and expert in human behaviour, Dr. Cindy Wahler has extensive and broad based experience in positioning organizations for success, within both the private and public sectors.