Ego: The Bleeding Edge of Business Creativity

by Feb 12, 2021Creativity, Leadership

Check your ego at the door

The business strategist D. Marcum once wrote, “Our working definition of ego is not personal confidence, self-assuredness or self-awareness. Contrary to what owners of ego may think, ego is not equivalent to strength. Ego masquerades as confidence, but is quickly and easily recognized by others as insecurity and arrogance.”

Ryan Holiday was even bolder, naming an entire book: Ego is the Enemy.


In an ever-competitive, ruthless and unforgiving business landscape, many believe that ego is indispensable if you wish to survive. The now cliche business phrases: ‘Eat or be eaten’ or ‘do or die’ have not helped the case against ego either.

On the surface, the picture has been painted to depict a business case where bravado inherits the earth and with its pompous, ‘step on anyone in your way’ ego is promoted. In direct contrast, looking back at most business failures, mine and those of other entrepreneurs, I believe that nothing brings down people and companies faster than ego.


Success breeds Hubris

In his bestseller book, Only the Paranoid Survive, former Intel CEO Andy Grove writes, “Success leads to its own demise.” Put in another way, success is its own worst enemy.

I recently watched an interview with Charles de Ganahl Koch on Insider_ Fox News, (Charles Koch at the time of this writing is the 11the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of 50.5 Billion Dollars). He is the long-time CEO of Koch Industries – one of America’s biggest private companies, with sales of $115 billion and more than 100,000 employees.  In his book: Good Profit he hammers home the importance of humility in leadership.

In the interview, Koch talked about the first words his father, Fred Koch –who was the company founder – said to him before turning over the CEO reins. “I hope your first deal is a loser, otherwise you’ll think you’re a lot smarter than you are.”

It might sound like harsh words from a father to his son but the underlying lesson is more important. Koch went on to warn of the trap of overconfidence. He said “Hubris; arrogance,  is just one step ahead of loss of integrity,” he said. “Because if you think you’re better than other people, that you know more, then you’re going to think as many leaders have: that the rules don’t apply to them. So you’ll lose your integrity.”

He added, “Success is one of the worst enemies of success because success tends to breed complacency and lack of humility,”


Ego is the Achilles Heel of Strength

Unless there is a finely tuned self-awareness, ego is easily overdeveloped even if imperceptibly. In an odd twist, the very traits and powerful talents that one possesses can become destructive and degenerate into weakness.

Every strength you possess, if multiplied by Ego will turn into a weakness. Confidence can quickly grow into a sense of infallibility, agility could degenerate into over hastiness, Charm could become manipulation, control could easily spiral into inflexibility and flexibility could easily morph into ambivalence.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, wrote a book, Jack: Straight from the gut, in which he writes, “The biggest mistake I made while at GE was when I was just full of myself.”

He gives an account of when GE acquired one of Wall Street’s oldest and premier investment banks, Kidder Peabody.

Against the advice and experience of two of his most level headed and trusted Directors,  who both knew a ton more about the financial industry than he did, his ego crept in, making him think he could make anything work. Due to insider trading at Kidder Peabody, way before GE had acquired it, the whole acquisition turned into a nightmare.

GE ended up paying fines of up to $26 million in fines and lost more than $350 million in subsequent backlash from that single acquisition.


How do you check your ego?

The complexity of ego is compounded by the fact that the people who have the biggest problem with it often don’t think they have a problem. The key to knowing if you are stepping into the ego zone or already have an ego problem is watching out for these three signs, especially if they occur together.

  • Always being caught in a cloud of self-absorption,
  • Being overly defensive and
  • Desperately seeking approval from others.


Sign # 1. The cloud of self-absorption

Business Leader, Steve Smith writes “When your ego goes into overdrive, there is a natural tendency to dive into the deep (so you think) recess of your brilliance when someone identifies a business concern. This leads to one getting caught in a web of self-absorption.

You think to yourself, “I’m miles ahead of them. They need me. They need my expertise. I’ll weave my magic and fix them.”

Whereas you might think you are simply showcasing your brilliance, you end up losing credibility. People see arrogance in place of brilliance and shut you down.

Harry, in the movie Dumb and Dumber, illustrates this better, “Yeah, I called her up; she gave me a bunch of crap about me not listening to her or something.  I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention.

Showcasing your ‘brilliance’ carries with it a risk of serious downside:

  • You may be wrong. (Ouch!)
  • Others might see you as arrogant. (which doesn’t help)
  • Others may not buy-in or own your idea
  • The blame may fall squarely on you if the idea fails
  • If the other teammates don’t shut down completely, they may start telling you only what you want to hear.


Sign # 2. Defensive overdrive

In their book, Better than Duct Tape, Authors Patterson, McMillan, Grenny and Switzler write, “We are most likely to face resistance and counterattack when we enter a conversation afflicted with the deadly disease of certainty.(Of this we’re damn certain.)

When one is defensive, you don’t treat your ideas as a testable hypothesis but as facts to be validated and accepted as they are.

Instead of discovering the point, you dig for evidence to prove your point. Instead of asking others, you ask yourself. When you ask others and their answers are contrary to what you hold true, you dismiss their views as somehow inapplicable or insufficient. You listen but you resist hearing.

The downside of being defensive is:

  • You repeat the same mistakes_ many times over.
  • You create divisiveness and defensiveness in others
  • You don’t get critical input to make your ideas better.
  • Others shut you down and leave you isolated.


Sign # 3. Desperately seeking approval

When you are constantly seeking approval, you primarily share ideas with the intention of being popular, liked or accepted__ and rarely with the intention of inviting a close hard, often critical look at your ideas. You may be hesitant to share your true perspectives since you’re worried about what others might think of you.

In the book, Business Think, Authors Dave, Smith and Khalsa write, “With the ego-generated need for approval, you don’t give the unvarnished truth, explore failure paths or give your insider’s perspective, often when it’s most needed.”

When you are constantly wrapped up in seeking others’ approval, your self-concept slowly gets associated with your ideas. If others like your ideas and accept them, you feel accepted, if they reject them, you feel personally rejected. You quickly learn to give people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. This is how the yes-men and yes-women got their infamous start.

You may imagine and even argue that simply obeying and accepting may be appropriate. What could possibly go wrong?

  • You stop adding any value or thought leadership.
  • The ideas you blindly follow could be wrong _ and you still bear the brunt.
  • You could lose the respect of those who courageously share their perspective and those who need your opinion.

As American academic Michael Useem puts it, “If people are too intimidated or too reluctant to help their leaders lead, their leaders will fail.”


The effects of Ego

When ego hits the floor, dialogue about ideas and information quickly becomes a monologue about personal issues. It affects communication and ideas in four distinct ways:

  • Filters: Ego selectively allows in only what validated your perspective and thinking, dismissing any contrary opinion or information.
  • Alters: Ego manipulates or bends information that comes in with the sole purpose of proving your point.
  • Magnifies: Ego amplifies information beyond its intended meaning or significance.
  • Fabricates: Ego creates information that never existed.


Final thoughts on Ego

Ego consumes everything and everyone in its path. It has no pleasure other than to have superiority over others, their position, ideas, worth and value. It relentlessly seeks comparison and gains satisfaction only in having more than another. It is under the delusion that it’s always right because it pretends to know everything.

In business, as well as life, no one knows everything. We make the right decision by assessing important information from others and analyzing it without hubris.

We could all learn a thing or two from James Dyson, arguably one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Britain. Given his wild success and determined, entrepreneurial spirit, he remains a person who keeps his ego checked in pursuit of continuous learning.

He is prepared to take advice and to change his mind. Many people, when they get to that age (aged 73 in 2021) are inflexible, but not James,” Said one of Dyson’s colleagues about him.

What can be said of you and your ego?


Samuel Njoroge writes and speaks about Creativity, Strategy, Leadership and Productivity. 

Through his boutique firm, Azelea Coaching Advisory, he works directly with over 100 business leaders and entrepreneurs each year to help them design the necessary framework to achieve their biggest business targets. 

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