Understand the Ego
An unmanaged ego creates multiple risks for us as leaders and for the people who follow us. It makes us susceptible to manipulation; it narrows our field of vision; and it corrupts our behavior, often causing us to act against our values.
Most of us do not like to think that we are egoistic. We want to think that we are driven by kindness and generosity. And while we can truly hold those values, we have all experienced moments when we are unkind, selfish, and self-centered.
Why do we sometimes behave in selfish ways? It happens because of how our brains are wired, specifically because of the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN).
Research has found that when we are not engaging in intentional mental activity, the Default Mode Network takes over. On ‘autopilot’, the brain slides into daydreaming, recalling memories, envisioning the future, and wondering about the intentions of others. We get anxious about things we should have said or done, afraid of what people will think, and worried about what they may do to us. Research shows that on average, we spend 47% of our waking hours in this wandering and mostly self-referential mental mode. This means that for almost half of our waking hours we are susceptible to being unproductive and anxious—and certainly not the best leaders.
The DMN is where our egos reside*. When it is activated, we see the world only from our own perspective. We don’t put ourselves in the shoes of others and don’t consider their points of view. By ruminating on ourselves, we create a sense of identity, albeit a limited one; this view doesn’t encompass our ultimate potential or how we are interconnected with others.
Even though this is our default mode of thinking, and it serves us to conserve mental energy, it is essential for leaders to learn to suppress the auto-pilot. Studies have shown that we lessen the impact of the DMN when we train our mind and enhance our awareness. Through regular practice, we don’t just become more aware of ourselves and our environments, but we also rewire our brains to be less self-oriented and more selfless.
*Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free energy: A neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. Brain, 133(4), 1265–1283. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awq010
What you can do to keep your ego in check
1. Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions:
• Do you get annoyed when you have to wait in line at an airport versus getting recognized for your status?
• Have you ever experienced a sense of dissatisfaction seeing someone else in your organization getting recognized for an achievement?
• Do you tend to feel hurt or angry when someone shares feedback with you?
• Do you sometimes catch yourself wanting to win an argument versus ensuring the best ideas are discussed?
2. Check yourself (and your motivations)
Leadership is not about you but about the people and the organization you lead. Can you take yourself out of the equation and consider the long-term benefits of others? Here is a simple way of checking: Think of the next decision you need to make. What is your motivation? Are you doing it for personal gain or for the benefits of others? Be honest.
3. Watch your Talk:Listen ratio
During conversations, become aware of how much time you spend talking versus how much time you spend listening. Are you spendingtime thinking about what you’re going to say next and then jumping in to fix the situation, or are you truly hearing what the other person has to say?Leadership requires us to be present and to deeply hear people so we can help guide them through a situation versus solving things from our own point of view.
4. Spend 10 minutes practicing awareness
Follow our guided audio practice led by Rasmus Hougaard: https://www.potentialproject.com/basic-awareness-practice
Based on "The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results" by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter