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4 ways to let the air out of your leadership ego

How big an ego does a leader need? And what’s the price of overconfidence?

5 min read



How big an ego does a leader need? And what’s the price of overconfidence?

According to authors Scott and Ken Blanchard, an overinflated ego creates a distorted sense of importance, which decreases leadership effectiveness. In this Fast Company article, they write that leaders with outsized egos “begin to put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of those affected by their thoughts and actions.” This overconfidence erodes a leader’s ability to effectively collaborate.

Beyond the hit to collaboration, big egos also blind leaders to impending personal set-backs. Many times, it’s not until a leader is brought up short by a humiliating incident that they recalibrate their confidence level.

Bill Treasurer, chief encouragement office of Giant Leap Consulting, likens these leadership wake-up calls to a swift kick in the pants. In Treasurer’s latest book, “A Leadership Kick in the Ass: How to Learn from Rough Landings, Blunders, and Missteps,” Treasurer observes that the way in which leaders “deal with kick-butt moments will make all the difference toward their future effectiveness.” The best leaders are those that have figured out the right balance of humility and confidence, says Treasurer. 

And checking your ego at the door isn’t just an exercise in niceness. It has financial benefits as well. In the Harvard Business Review article “Measuring the Return on Character,” author and consultant Fred Kiel and his team of researchers studied executives at 84 U.S. companies to determine if there was a connection between leaders with characters and their companies’ financial performance. Leaders who were rated by employees as possessing the highest levels of “character” (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion) financially outperformed their lowest-rated counterparts by nearly fivefold.

Of course, trying to get an overconfident person to see that he or she needs to let a little air out of their ego balloon is, at best, like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Those folks will simply have to wait for their “humiliating growth opportunity.” In the meantime, here are four ways you can ensure that you’ll be less likely to need a good kick in the keister.

1. Spend time with a kid. The pre-K set doesn’t care about your latest merger and acquisition, or your stellar P&L sheet. They do, however, care very much about authenticity and can sniff out a phony at 20 paces. If it’s been a while since you hung out with the under-5crowd, keep this in mind: All they want is kindness, fairness, fun, and maybe a snack. Dial back your urge to impress and you’ll do fine.

2. Appoint a professional truth-teller. Kids are great truth-tellers about some things (“Your hair looks funny”) but for professional endeavors, you need also a trusted colleague who you can rely on. Treasurer writes, “When you’re in a leadership role, people tend to coddle you too much. It’s important for every leader to have a kinship with a few people who won’t pamper you.” He suggests appointing a “Chief Ego Deflator” — someone who will tell you the unvarnished truth.

3. Go “undercover.” Seek out an opportunity where nobody knows what you do for a living. Like the TV show “Undercover Boss,” you’re looking to hide your identity. But instead of learning about the inner workings of your company’s frontline, you’re looking to shed the baggage that comes with being “the boss.” Find a hobby or volunteer where you can simply “be you.”

One executive I recently talked with shared that the pressures of his job melt away when he volunteers with elderly residents at an assisted living facility. “They don’t know who I am. And even if they did, I bet they wouldn’t care,” he shared with me. “These folks have 20 to 30 years’ life experience on me. It’s very awe-inspiring, what many of them have been through.”

4. Put yourself in the role of “newbie.” It’s humbling when you have no idea what you’re doing. Although uncomfortable, being new at something is a great ego deflator. Over the holiday break, I asked my teenaged son to help me learn Snapchat. Not because I really want to take dozens of selfies a day, but because I wanted to learn something new — and, in the process, build rapport with a very important part of my team at home. My son delighted in having the tables turned; for a change, Mom was the novice and he was the sage.

An overabundance of confidence can lead you to become overly focused on your agenda. Keep these four ego-deflators close at hand so that you can place the proper perspective on your leadership role. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.” That’s not a gift worth giving yourself—or those you lead.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”