I once had an incredible leader pose me an insightful question: “How do I know if my actions are motivated by ego?”

This concept of ego is a confusing one for many leaders. On the one hand, leaders have been led to believe that charisma and a big personality inspire confidence in employees and shareholders. Then, Jim Collins and team wrote the blockbuster Good to Great and reported that the greatest companies are led by humble leaders with names memorable only to those lucky enough to work with them.

I think that part of the confusion stems in part from an incorrect equating of ego and confidence.

Ego: the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world

So when we say someone has a big ego, we imply that he or she is more focused on one’s self than others. She thinks about actions and events first in terms of how they impact her or what they reveal about her, creating a wall of separation between herself and others that limits her ability to feel empathy.

This self-focus is an unnecessary and unhelpful filter that guides behavior and reduces effectiveness in all areas of life.

We tire of working for people with inflated egos. We spend unnecessary energy trying to influence them and communicate in a way that makes it through their egoistic filter. We limit the amount of information we share because we’ve learned that if it challenges the ego, it won’t be heard and we, the messenger, may suffer.

We prefer to work with people who are self-aware, not self-obsessed.

Confidence, on the other hand, is a most desirable trait in a leader. And confidence combined with a healthy ego–where the leader has a balanced focus on herself and others--creates behaviors that can cultivate impressive results. The leaders featured in Good to Great possessed a quiet confidence.

Here are some indicators of inflated and balanced ego:

(Less Effective) (More Effective)
Inflated Ego (Characterized by Ungrounded Confidence; Too Much Focus on Self and Not Enough on Other) Balanced Ego (Characterized by Compelling, Grounded Confidence; Balanced Awareness of Self and Other)
  • Holds and expresses opinions, beliefs, assumptions as truths
  • Holds and expresses opinions, beliefs, and assumptions as possibilities.
  • Cares about own successes over those of the organization or others’.
  • Concerned as much or more for others’ and organization’s success as for hers own.
  • Blind to own weaknesses and won’t readily admit them to others. Fears being found out to be less competent than presumed.
  • Knows own strengths and weaknesses and communicates them as appropriate.
  • Blames others for own failings.
  • Assumes responsibility for mistakes.
  • Hoards attention and the best work.
  • Delegates the best work to the most relevant people based on their talents, experience, values and goals.
  • Assumes she knows. Asks accusatory, defensive questions that are closed ended or begin with ‘Why’.
  • Seeks to understand. Asks open-ended questions.
  • Is easily offended or angered.
  • Assumes positive intent in others and is not easily offended.
  • Seeks roles that bring prestige, for the sake of prestige.
  • Seeks roles that leverage her strengths and are a fit with values, skills, and goals.
  • Relationships with others are superficial or non-existent.
  • Builds authentic relationships easily.
  • Says “I” often.
  • Says “we” often.

Perhaps you were reminded of an egocentric colleague in the left hand side. And maybe you even saw a glimpse of your own behaviors, thoughts, or motivations on the ego-heavy left-side list.

Good News. Anyone can develop compelling confidence.

So, how can you boost your confidence, shrink your ego, and become a leader/colleague with whom others are inspired to work?

Right-Size Your Ego:

  • Observe yourself. Notice what you do and which column it falls into.
  • For those behaviors that fall in the left (Inflated Ego) column, pick one and take action to employ a new behavior. Create a support network to help.
  • Pick a behavior in the right (Balanced Ego) column that you already do well and find ways to maintain it and leverage it even more.
  • Tell others what you are working on.
  • After 3 weeks, ask people who don’t fear you to tell you how you are doing.
  • Do the new behavior for 28 days until it’s in you and until you have proof that others see it.
  • Consider conducting an anonymous survey to ensure your self perception aligns with others

“Enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Related post from Brilliance Inc: Are You Truly Confident?

And from Mary Jo Asmus: Pardon Me Your Ego is Showing

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