This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Ego tends to get a bad rap in leadership circles, and it's no wonder why. When somebody is said to "have an ego," it's typically meant that they're arrogant, condescending, or self-absorbed. The best leaders are popularly cast as humble servants, visionaries who’ve managed to shrink their egos to make room for other people, ideas, and ways of doing things.
Executives are routinely coached to turn away from ego altogether. They’re led to believe their egos will only get in the way of their credibility and effectiveness, and spell certain doom for their ability to forge a purposeful, positive, productive work culture.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Thinking about your ego as something to be stuffed down and barred from your professional life isn't just counterproductive, it also misunderstands what ego actually is and how it works. Devaluing your ego stunts your development as a leader and makes it harder to champion a healthy, inspirational work culture.
Embracing your ego doesn't automatically make you a raging narcissist, either. Instead, it can give you a personal advantage that, if you harness it appropriately, translates into a competitive advantage for your company. Your ego is a good thing. You came into this word with it. Just as it did in your early childhood, while it was still developing, your ego even today provides the essential framework through which you understand the world and your place within it.
While ego experts differ over the stages, cut points, and pacing of ego development, a 2014 meta-analysis by researchers Lê Xuân and Hy Jane Loevinger lays out the psychological underpinnings of the ego’s role in emotional and cognitive maturation. To paraphrase that framework, our egos help us move through these four stages:
- Self-centeredness ("What do I think is important?")
- Group-centeredness ("How can I fit in to what the group thinks is important?")
- Independence ("I’m the leader of my own destiny")
- Group affiliation ("How can I, amid constant change and disruption, become self-actualized while also demonstrating to others how to make their own way?")
That fourth stage is characterized by comfort with ambiguity and the innate complexity of real people and situations. This progression suggests that ego isn’t a malevolent "thing" after all, it's a process. And it's entirely different from egotism, narcissism, arrogance, and the other traits with which we tend to hastily conflate it.
In practice, "having an ego" simply means understanding the worldview through which you act—in order to get your own needs met as well as the needs of others. And that, of course, is in every leader's job description.
Take that fourth stage of ego development, about becoming "self-actualized while also demonstrating to others how to make their own way." Isn’t that what leadership is all about?
It’s dualistic: Yes, you must serve and support and help and encourage. And to do that, you must be compassionate and humble. But before you can do any of those things, you need to develop confidence in yourself—not arrogance, but well-justified faith in your own abilities. That takes discovering how you—uniquely—can support both yourself and other people to go through the same process, to "self-actualize" in reaction to all the messiness of business and life.
The veteran leadership researcher Deborah Rowland recently put it this way in Harvard Business Review: "Leadership development must start by working on the inner game. It’s very hard for leaders to have courageous conversations . . . until they’ve built their systemic capacity to view disturbances as transformational, not dysfunctional." Or in other words, until they’ve gotten to know and supported themselves properly.
Pause for a moment. Can you imagine anything on earth more appropriately pride-inspiring than reaching this level of individual development, not just as a leader but as a person? Ego isn’t the antithesis of "servant leadership" or the enemy of an inspiring, engaging, productive work culture that you and your team can be proud of. It’s the underpinning of it.
And experts who've studied how the most effective work cultures develop claim that a truly purpose-driven company is made up of people who see what the company does as supporting things they already personally believe in. Without that alignment, it all falls apart.
You may think of ego as a relatively new concept, a modern concept developed by Sigmund Freud or Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s not. Hy Jane Loevinger traces its origins far back into antiquity, where what we now understand as a psychological concept had antecedents in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Hindu cultures.
As a human, you’re hardwired to want to understand other people as well as to understand yourself—there's no either/or. Our sense of self has everything to do with our sense of other people. It's all relational, and our ego is the framework for understanding those relations.
Trying to kick your ego to the curb is like running from your shadow. It will always be there, so you might as well embrace and develop it. In the process, you can develop those relationships more thoughtfully and deliberately. Some of this takes some self-reflection that touches on the philosophic, but that's not to be confused with self-absorption. Dig deep into your current understanding of your place in the world, in your community, and in your workplace, so you can begin to question that understanding and deepen it.
Simply schedule regular check-ins with yourself to see how you’re progressing along those four stages of ego development (you just don't automatically complete them at a certain age), especially in the context of your most challenging relationships. Then move from yourself outward: Are you supporting not just your own ego, but your organization’s collective ego?
And yes, all this self-reflection may feel a little egocentric. It is, and that's the point.
S. Chris Edmonds is the author of The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace. Follow him on Twitter at @scedmonds.