Ego Is the Enemy of Good Leadership

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

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On his first day as CEO of the Carlsberg Group, a global brewery and beverage company, Cees ‘t Hart was given a key card by his assistant. The card locked out all the other floors for the elevator so that he could go directly to his corner office on the 20th floor. And with its picture windows, his office offered a stunning view of Copenhagen. These were the perks of his new position, ones that spoke to his power and importance within the company.

Cees spent the next two months acclimating to his new responsibilities. But during those two months, he noticed that he saw very few people throughout the day. Since the elevator didn’t stop at other floors and only a select group of executives worked on the 20th floor, he rarely interacted with other Carlsberg employees. Cees decided to switch from his corner office on the 20th floor to an empty desk in an open-floor plan on a lower floor.

When asked about the changes, Cees explained, “If I don’t meet people, I won’t get to know what they think. And if I don’t have a finger on the pulse of the organization, I can’t lead effectively.”

This story is a good example of how one leader actively worked to avoid the risk of insularity that comes with holding senior positions. And this risk is a real problem for senior leaders. In short, the higher leaders rise in the ranks, the more they are at risk of getting an inflated ego. And the bigger their ego grows, the more they are at risk of ending up in an insulated bubble, losing touch with their colleagues, the culture, and ultimately their clients. Let’s analyze this dynamic step by step.

As we rise in the ranks, we acquire more power. And with that, people are more likely to want to please us by listening more attentively, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes. All of these tickle the ego. And when the ego is tickled, it grows. David Owen, the former British Foreign Secretary and a neurologist, and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, call this the “hubris syndrome,” which they define as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of Potential Project, a global leadership and organizational development firm serving Microsoft, Accenture, Cisco and hundreds of other organizations. He is publishing his second book The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results with HBR Press in March 2018.

Jacqueline Carter is a partner and the North American Director of Potential Project. She is co-author of The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (HBR Press, 2018) as well as co-author with Rasmus Hougaard on their first book One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness.

 

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