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Ego - The Greatest Enemy of a Leader

Brilliant and talented senior managers are often blindsided by their egos. Their failure to accept constructive feedback and realities will eventually derail their career.

Case study 1 – General Electric

Former CEO Jeremy Immelt's 'success theatre,' ultimately led General Electric to its downfall.

His bad decisions caused the company to wipe away $150 billion in market value. The ego-driven leader had created his illusion of success by thinking that he had made very good decisions on questionable projects. The results realistically turned out to be the opposites of what he envisioned.

One would question why the employees did not stop him? It boils down to another problem of the ego-driven leader, that is, 'only wants to hear the good stuff, or we can locally describe it as the Class 95.0 FM effect.

Talented staff who challenged or criticised the egoistic leader were either be shunned, or ostracised. This led to talent drain within the organisation. Thus, leaving behind an army of yes-men who readily agreed to anything the leader said. This crew of loyal aides indirectly had caused the ego inflation of the CEO.

Leaders with inflated egos will always think that they are the smartest, the most logical, and the most talented people in the company.


Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard University described illusionary superiority as the Dunning-Kruger effect. His study has shown that ego will cause leaders to overestimate their abilities.

His research was backed by Professor Oliver Sheldon, David Dunning, and Daniel Ames from Rutgers University and Cornell University.

They interviewed over 100 students who had just completed their MBA and asked how well they did. The study concluded that the lowest performers were usually the ones who overestimated themselves during the survey. Two other surprising findings were that these people were least likely to buy books to improve their skills, while some would even question the survey's credibility.

The moment when you think that you are more superior or more capable than anyone, is also the moment when you have stopped learning.

Repercussions of an Ego-Driven Leadership

1. Insularity

An ego-driven leadership environment will lead to insularity. The leader will lose touch with their colleagues, working culture, clients, and worst of all, reality. In short, the leader indulges in his or her own world.

People who went through national service might see some commanders sitting down on the dirt with their men while enjoying combat rations together. In comparison, we might also see some senior commanders being served by a waiter at his 'private dining space' in the outfields.

While leadership has its privileges, the dangers of ego inflation set in as we rise in ranks and power . Senior leaders enjoying the special privileges may risk putting themselves in insulated bubbles with a feeling of entitlement.

Moreover, more people will also try to please them, listen to them attentively, agree with all their ideas, and laugh at their jokes even though they are not funny. The ego-inflated leader will then feel invincible because of the overwhelming praises and acknowledgments. Such feeling is known as the 'Hubris Syndrome.'

Case Study 2: Carlsberg

On his first day as CEO of Carlsberg, Cees't Hart got an elevator card that he could use to gain direct access to his office on the 20th floor, which also has picturesque views of Copenhagen. All other levels will be locked; and no other employees can use the lift that he is using.

He used the card for the next two months. However, during these periods, he had minimal interaction with other employees. Hence, he moved his office from the 20th floor to an open office at the lower level, so as to mingle and interact with his staff.

When asked during an interview, he said, "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 organisation, I can't lead effectively." (Source: Harvard Business Review)

2. Vulnerability

People may take advantage by stroking the leader's ego. Hence, the ego-driven leader can be very vulnerable at all times. Case Study #1 (Former CEO of GE) has clearly shown us this point. By rubbing his ego, some companies effortlessly convinced him to invest in unprofitable projects that would make him look 'successful.'

Hence, the constant need for validation and praise will open the leader to attack and compromise.

The ego is like a human target board. The more inflated the ego, the bigger the target board. Therefore, a company is highly vulnerable if its leader is an egomaniac.

3. Dismissal of Feedback

The egoistic leader will always think that their ideas and plans are the best, even though they are not. If any staff were to challenge their opinions by offering better alternative solutions, the egomaniac would quickly turn them down, nit-pick on their proposals, and then make them feel inferior.

Such dismissal of valued feedback can be detrimental to the company’s human capital development, thus resulting in a high volume of turnovers.

Case Study #3: Starbucks

Howard Schultz accredited the success of Starbucks to his managers, whom he thinks are more innovative, more experienced, and more talented than him.

He prefers to hire intelligent and confident people who can debate him on important business decisions rather than hiring a bunch of yes-men. Two of his trusted 'debate opponents' are Howard Behar and Orin Smith. People working at Starbucks HQ call this trio 'H2O' because they can work together synergistically as a team despite having different points of view. Howard Schultz is also grateful to them for constantly checking his ego.

In his book, <Pour Your Heart into It>, he mentioned,

“There's a common mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make. They own the idea, and they have the passion to pursue it. But they can't possibly possess all the skills needed to make the idea actually happen.”

“Reluctantly to delegate, they surround themselves with faithful aides. They're afraid to bring in truly smart, successful individuals as high-level managers.”

4. Blaming Culture

An ego-driven leadership will also form a blaming culture in the company. It is because egoistic leaders will never admit their mistakes nor take responsibility for any error made by the company's representatives. So, whenever there is a problem, the company will look for a fall guy (or fall girl). Everyone will point fingers at one another to protect themselves. There will be absolutely no unity and trust within the company.

Case Study #4: United Airlines

The former CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, took the blaming culture to the next level. In 2017, an airline attendant forcibly dragged a ticketed passenger off the plane because the plane was overbooked by mistake.

Instead of owning up to the company's mistake, the CEO blamed it as a system failure. Moreover, instead of admonishing his employees, he blamed the ticketed passenger for being ‘disruptive and belligerent’ such that he needed to be 're-accommodated.'

Tips to Prevent Ego-Driven Leadership for Your Company

  • Hire more competent and talented people who can debate and give honest and constructive feedback.

  • Remove unnecessary privileges that may result in special treatment among the senior-level managers.

  • Arrange more training and development courses for senior-level managers, junior managers, and staff of all-level.

  • Senior-level managers must be willing to accept criticism, and they must not think that they are always right. They should also constantly ask for honest feedback from staff and clients.

In summary, ego is the Achilles Heel of the leader. Do not let anyone stroke it or inflate it. Be alert, be willing to learn, and accept other people's feedback.

Here is a fantastic quote from former CEO of PEPSI, Indra Nooyi on recieving feedback

"Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different."


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