Your ego is not you. It’s a structure built of a lifetime of experience, disappointment and pain (and some good stuff too). Your true self is the consciousness that lies beneath the ego. It’s built out of love and purpose. But your ego doesn’t want you to know that. The trick of the ego is that it convinces you that it is you.
Ego arises from our need for significance. Just as our need for certainty isn’t inherently bad, neither is our need for significance. Having a high need for significance doesn’t automatically make you a malignant narcissist. Significance is another way of saying that we need to feel that we matter. We need to be validated. That’s just human. And it’s universal. But, if we don’t manage it well, our need for significance can develop into a significant problem.
When we operate from a mismanaged ego, the world is about me, me, me rather than we, we, we. This limits our field of view, and the resulting tunnel vision can have a severe impact not only on our personal fulfillment in life, but also on our ability to be effective leaders and contributors.
Leaders with a high need for significance have to have all the answers. And because of this, they fail to reach out to others for information and feedback. Bad ideas aren’t quashed, and great ideas aren’t heard. Rather than learning from the success of others, they become threatened by it or resentful of it. This leads to more isolation and more tunnel vision. More me, me, me.
When our need for significance takes prominence, nothing is ever enough. If we have a million dollars, we want ten million. If the audience applauds loudly, we want a standing ovation. This perpetuates feelings of stuckness, because we’re never satisfied. A high need for significance can lead to pointless competitiveness that is detached from our core values. We need the biggest house on the block, the nicest car, the hottest spouse. With each win, keeping up with the Joneses takes us further away from who we really are. We become slaves to our own images and purchases.
The result? Stuck. Stuck. Stuck.
Sam, a CTO at a medium-sized technology company, worked for months on a new product strategy. True to his ego-driven self, he did all the work alone, including market research, product function and feature design, sales strategy and pricing. When he presented his recommendations to his boss, the company’s CEO, the boss had serious concerns and declined to move forward with his plan.
A week later, Sam was beside himself during our coaching session as he complained bitterly. “He didn’t even see all the work I’d put into the strategy! It’s obvious this is the direction we need to take the company in, why is he being so blind? I’m stuck and it’s his fault!”
So I asked him why he thought his boss rejected his proposal. He gave several answers.
“Because he hates me.”
“He doesn’t understand me.”
“He’s mad at me.”
“He’s threatened by me.”
Me. Me. Me. All Sam’s answers came from his ego. He didn’t attempt to put himself in the CEO’s shoes. He didn’t attempt to understand his perspective. He dismissed the feedback he gave during his presentation.
The truth was, Sam’s proposal, though very clever, also included a lot of risk. If not executed properly, there was a good chance it would disrupt the company’s core revenue stream.
Sam knew this. But he just couldn’t see past himself and his needs. Had he considered the CEO’s perspective, he might have framed his recommendations differently. They might have had a productive conversation about how they could implement Sam’s plan while protecting existing revenues.
When people operating from ego are faced with confrontation or disagreement, they become defensive (He hates me!) rather than introspective (How could I have framed my arguments differently?). Their egos won’t let them accept responsibility. Rather, they place blame elsewhere, never learning from their mistakes condemning them to repeat them.
Ugh. Now that’s stuck.
P.S. I’m sure you’re wondering if I was able to coach Sam to a less ego-driven perspective. Nope. I wasn’t. You can’t win them all. But, he’s since moved on to a new organization where I believe he’s much happier. Sometimes, the ego flares because we’re in in a job or place that’s just not for us. And once we find a better fit, it quiets down again.
This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Unstuck Leader: Getting unstuck. Staying Unstuck. If you’d like to learn the five steps to eliminating the patterns of belief and behavior that are holding you back, sign-up for my email newsletter, and you’ll be the first to know when the book is published.