Six ways to dial down the ego and let humility lead the way

Business Impact: Six ways to dial down the ego and let humility lead the way
Business Impact: Six ways to dial down the ego and let humility lead the way

It’s probably accurate to say that leaders who have no sense of awareness, who judge others negatively, and who never seek feedback cause considerable damage in an organisation.  And, although that damage may well be financial, it is almost always psychological. In Cy Wakeman’s 2017 book, No Ego, this damage is called the ‘ego-driven emotional waste’ that drains a team or organisation of time and energy.

In a leadership context, ego can be viewed as existing on a spectrum, with self-effacing behaviours at one end (potentially causing leaders to become invisible), and self-aggrandising behaviours at the other, which can truly stifle others. Both extremes are dangerous in their own ways.  Somewhere in the middle sits humility. Research led by David Wang at Biola University 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.

There are a number of strategies leaders can use to moderate or dial down their ‘ego presence’ and cultivate humility:

1. Reflect on where they are on the ‘humility scale’

The maxim that we can’t change what we don’t measure rings true here. To avoid falling into the habit of engaging in egotistical thinking and exhibiting egotistical behaviours, it can be useful to think of a scale of one to 10, where 10 is very high in egotism, and one equates to being overly submissive and self-effacing. Thinking about where we fit on that scale can greatly increase awareness and aid self-regulation.

While we may not always be able to shift from egotistical behaviour to humility in the middle of a single meeting, we can notice where our average position on the scale has been during particular days or over the course of a week. Time spent reflecting on our egotistical tendencies, as well as other aspects of development, is time well spent, and we advocate that leaders take regular time out for review.  

2. Exercise mindfulness

One of the main objectionable outputs of the egotist is judgmental thinking. In this regard, mindfulness is useful. It is described as paying attention on purpose, but without judgment, and although it has become something of a cliché recently, and is even shunned by some, focusing on the present through mindfulness brings benefits in terms of helping leaders become less judgemental. It also helps them gain clarity of thought, regulate emotions and reduce stress levels. Additionally, being mindful can assist ethical behaviours as it is when we are not mindful that our thoughts become polluted with worries and tactics, and we become pejorative.

Mindfulness takes time and practice. However, it is worth it because 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 data that provides information resulting in a change of course, or output. However, the thought of asking for feedback can often fill even experienced leaders with trepidation. This may be because the feedback process has previously been hijacked and used as a vehicle for attacks on character, rather than as a source of valuable information. Feedback is vitally important, and leaders who resist the feedback 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 encourage feedback processes that focus on tangible behaviours or events. Facts should be separated from feelings and opinions to prevent feedback sessions plunging into an emotionally toxic maelstrom. Additionally, leaders should be receiving feedback. This not only helps them finetune their own activities, but also demonstrates to others 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 all sense of time and ourselves. Worries, including those that are ego-driven, dissolve, and we become one with the task at hand, using our skills to explore or be immersed in something. Activities that provide opportunities to be in flow help us let go of any need to control people and realise our egos and our job titles are not important.

A 2019 article on Medium describes the value of being in flow and how it helps us become happier, healthier and less ego obsessed: flow, it describes, 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

The importance of seeking feedback suggests that it is vitally important for leaders to have critical friends. Critical friends are usually people who have been known to the leader for some time and have a track record of transparency, trustworthiness and honesty. They have no political or competing agenda. Crucially however, they are not ‘yes people’.

Although the leader may not always agree with a critical friend’s point of view, that can be good since their role is to offer an honest perspective. In this way, they help us deflate the ‘ego balloon’. It should be remembered that a critical friend is not someone who is our critic, but someone who is critical to our success. 

6. Cultivate a ‘servant leadership’ philosophy

The leadership philosophy that most resonates with dialling down the ego and letting humility lead the way is ‘servant leadership’. This theory involves moving away from an opportunistic, or self-serving leadership style towards an emphasis on humility and the needs of followers. 

Additional characteristics of the servant leader include:

  • Understanding and accepting others as they are
  • Awareness
  • Building community and committing to the growth of others
  • Seeking to influence without the use of positional power

These are characteristics that are almost entirely absent when over-zealous egotistical psychology is at play. Above all, the egotist 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 (left) is the Founder of Braver Leadership.
Elaine Cox (right) is an Honorary Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.

Mike McLaughlin and Elaine Cox are the co-authors of Braver Leaders in Action: Personal and Professional Development for Principled Leadership (Emerald Publishing, 2022).

Read more Business Impact articles related to leadership:

Business Impact Volume 17 (3: 2023)

Download the latest edition of the Business Impact magazine

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