5 Ways to Keep Your Ego in Check


“We found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.”Jim Collins, Good to Great

I recently met the local soup kitchen's volunteer coordinator who me told a remarkable story.  Apparently,  a large organization has a CEO who volunteers with the kitchen once a month and does so completely anonymously. This guy shows up alone and works alongside others scrubbing floors, washing tables, or serving meals all under the cloak of secrecy.  The coordinator didn't figure out who the CEO was for almost a year, and even then did so by accident.  When the coordinator asked the CEO why he decided to serve, he said, "to keep my ego in check."

Wow!  How inspiring.  Now if only we knew his name!!!

When I heard the story, I thought about Jim Collins' book, Good to Great.  (Have you read it? No? Download a copy now, thank me later!)

In the book Collins tackles the complex topics of what makes great leaders (Level 5 Executives is his vernacular) and, in a nutshell, he says great leaders have, "a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will."

Did you catch that?  They are HUMBLE and WILLFUL/STRONG.

In other words, their ego is in check even while they are relentless in making their organizations thrive.  What a challenge! Ego management isn't a natural state of affairs; most people enjoy positive attention and a little glory, and many of us want to take a victory lap around our cube and celebrate our awesomeness on occasion!  This isn't a bad thing, any more than ivy is a "bad" ground cover - it simply has to be managed.

Our egos, like ivy, when left unchecked, will take over and destroy everything in its path.  We don't want to throw our egos away, but we DO need a plan for containment. There are myriads of methods to try, but at least five ways caught my attention.

1. Make Serving Others a Corporate Value

Organizations which celebrate service and participate in corporate-wide volunteer days not only have happier employees, they have more engaged management.  When you're building a home or serving a meal to someone in need, you check your ego at the door.  When this is repeated, the entire organization bonds in inexplicable ways.

2. Make Serving Others a Personal Priority

If you serve the way the CEO/soup kitchen volunteer does, your ego will naturally lose its edge.  Schedule time off for your ego and work in a humbling environment serving the needy and see what happens!

3. Create a Culture of Unvarnished Feedback

If you really want to grow, you have to accept critical feedback.  This process threatens the ego and is extremely difficult to execute.  Do it anyway!

Use 360 degree feedback tools, hire external coaches to find the troubled spots, pick up the rocks and find the ugly worms underneath.  When that happens, shortcomings are clear and growth is suddenly possible.  Establish a "Devil's Advocate" to argue against your pet projects to make sure you're not bullying others into your opinions.

4. Never Accept Credit

What would happen if you never took credit for your "wins," but instead passed the kudos along to others around you.  What would that do for them and what would it do for you?

I know it sounds risky to the darker part of our ego, but every team needs people to "assist."  You'll be building your character at the expense of your ego.

As Coach John Wooden famously said, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

5. Make a Big Deal of Others

As I've combed through leadership articles, what DIDN'T lead to "right-sized egos" were people who were all about themselves, their comforts,  opinions, or acclaim. Instead, the Level 5 leaders were people who understood the importance of their team.  They celebrated not their own triumphs, but the work of the organization. They celebrated the people around them.

My plan is to employ as many of these techniques as possible because I definitely have an ego that needs checking!

Do you have a plan?  What techniques am I missing?