Great leaders dial down ego and increase humility

Mike McLaughlin and Elaine Cox offer leaders six ways to reduce ego and lead with humility 

Consider a leader who has no sense of awareness, who judges others negatively, and never seeks feedback and it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that considerable damage can be done. Wakeman calls this an ‘ego-driven emotional waste’ that drains a team or organisation of time and energy.
In the context of leadership, ego can be viewed as existing on a spectrum, with self-effacing behaviours at one end, and self-serving or self-aggrandising behaviours at the other.  Somewhere in the middle sits humility. Research suggests that humility is important, particularly for leaders taking on more responsibility, since it involves self-awareness, being open to feedback and appreciating others’ contributions and strengths.
The six ways leaders can reduce their ‘ego presence’ and cultivate humility
1. Reflect on where you are on the humility scale
To avoid falling foul of engaging in egotistical thinking and exhibiting egotistical behaviours, it can be useful to use a scale of one to ten, where ten is very high in egotism, and one equates to being overly meek and self-effacing. Thinking about the point on the scale where we consider humility lies and where we are in relation to it can greatly aid self-regulation.
While we may not always be able to change from egotistical behaviour to humility in the middle of a single meeting, for example, we may notice where we are on the scale on particular days or over the week. Time spent reflecting on our egotistical tendencies, as well as other aspects of our development, is time well spent and we recommend leaders regularly take time out for review.  So where have you been on the humility scale recently?

When dialling down egotistical behaviour, it is vital then to be aware of judgmental thinking because that is one of the objectionable outputs of the egotist

2. Exercise mindfulness
Mindfulness can be described as paying attention on purpose, but without judgment. Focusing on the present in this way brings many benefits in terms of helping us gain clarity of thought, regulate emotions, and reduce stress levels. Being mindful can also promote ethical behaviours by helping us become less judgemental. It is when we are not mindful that our thoughts become polluted with worries and tactics, and so we become judgemental. 

When dialling down egotistical behaviour, it is vital then to be aware of judgmental thinking because that is one of the objectionable outputs of the egotist.  Standing in judgement of others, seeing them as flawed, less than, inferior, or not as important, is dangerous territory for any leader. 

3. Seek feedback
Feedback in its simplest form is a signal or indicator that provides information resulting in a change of course, or output.  However, the mere thought of seeking feedback can often fill even experienced leaders with dread. This may be because the feedback process has been misused or hijacked and used as a vehicle for attacks on character, rather than as a source of valuable information. Feedback is extraordinarily important, and leaders who isolate themselves from this process are doing a disservice to everyone, especially themselves. 

One way to make feedback more productive is to create an organisational environment that is truth-seeking and truth-telling, and steer feedback processes to focus on tangible behaviours and events. Facts should be separated from feelings and opinions to prevent feedback sessions plunging into an emotional and sometimes toxic maelstrom. Addtionally, leaders should be seen to be receiving feedback. This not only helps them fine-tune their own activities, but also demonstrates to others in the organisation that this is the cultural norm.

4. Lose yourself in flow
Flow is the state of becoming so engrossed in an activity that we lose our sense of ourselves and of time. Worries, including those that are ego driven, dissolve, and we are at one with the task at hand, using our skills to explore, create or be immersed in something.  Activities that provide opportunities to be in flow help us let go of the need to control people and realise we are not our egos or our jobs.

Redfern describes the value of being in a state of flow and how it can help us become happier, healthier human beings and be less ego obsessed: flow helps us ‘unwind, recalibrate, and tap into a higher state of mind above the mud of our ruminative ego chatter’.

5. Make sure you have critical friends
Building on the importance of seeking feedback, it is vitally important for the leader to have critical friends. Critical friends are normally people who have been known to the leader for a while and have a track record of transparency, trustworthiness, and honesty. They have no political or competing agenda.

Although a leader may not always agree with a critical friend’s point of view that can be a good thing since their role is to support by offering an unalloyed perspective. Thus, a critical friend is not someone who is our critic, but someone who is critical to our success. Do you have critical friends? If not, where can you find them?  

6. Cultivate a ‘servant leadership’ philosophy
The leadership philosophy that most resonates with our aim to dial down the ego and let humility lead the way is servant leadership.  This theory involves moving away from an opportunistic, individualistic, or self-serving leadership style towards an emphasis on humility and the needs of followers.  

Some extra characteristics of the servant leader include: understanding and accepting others as they are; awareness and foresight; building community and committing to the growth of others; seeking to influence without the use of positional power.  Above all, the ‘noisy’ ego presumes knowledge and wants to show-off, but the humble, servant leader has only questions in mind as they move from situation to situation:

  • What might I learn here?
  • Where can I find people who know more than I do?
  • What do I need to understand before coming to any conclusions?

Mike McLaughlin and Elaine Cox are leadership development experts and co-authors of Braver Leaders in Action: Personal & Professional Development for Principled Leadership 


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