Previously published on Forbes
There’s no doubt that your ego can be of great service to you. It can help you develop confidence, speak up for yourself and win in life. It can also get you into trouble when it shows up as self-protection, arrogance and self-righteousness.
That’s why Paul Bennett, co-CEO and chief creative officer of Ideo, offers this important piece of advice to leaders: “Drop your ego. Let people see you as a person. You don’t need to be the cleverest person at the table.”
We all want to be seen, accepted, appreciated and loved. This is part of being human. Fears and insecurities are also part of being human. It’s how we deal with these insecurities that makes up who we are and how we show up as leaders.
Open leaders encourage clear, candid interactions among team members, between teams, and across their organizations. Like other leaders, they share the results of their work and the outcomes of their decisions. An effective leader also shares 80% of their fears and vulnerable truth. To enter this territory of sharing your vulnerable truth, you will have to drop or at least quiet your ego.
Invulnerability, self-importance and superiority are ways we protect ourselves, but none of that will create connections with those you work (or live) with. Instead, it causes you to hold yourself at a distance and keep yourself safe. Conversely, quieting the ego forces you to stop protecting yourself. You stop focusing on yourself, and as a result, you’re able to see others more clearly.
There are two ways to quiet your ego: self-disclose and be open to feedback. Both demonstrate an internal confidence and trust in yourself and others.
Appropriate Self-Disclosure as a Leader
Self-disclosure is not about sharing it all as a leader. You certainly aren’t going to start sharing the private details of your life with those you work with. That’s not appropriate self-disclosure.
Rather, it’s about letting people know you are human: your concerns, what you don’t know, where you’ve screwed up and what you learned along the way. Sharing your weaknesses, taking ownership of mistakes, revealing your motives, intentions, goals, values and feelings — these are all ways to self-disclose.
When leaders self-disclose how they struggled, or failed, to reach a good decision, they reveal their humanity and their common ground with others. This can be inspiring for a team and create connection and trust.
Learning appropriate self-disclosure can take time. Sometimes you find out you’ve gone too far or shared too much, or not enough. Be patient with the process.
Becoming Open to Feedback
One of the ways you’ll know how you’re progressing is through feedback. You want people to share with you what they see, feel and experience when you speak. It’s the richest way to learn.
But it’s not always easy to welcome feedback. By its very nature, feedback can be triggering. To rescue you from embarrassment or a sense of failure, your ego may jump in by being defensive or argumentative.
In his article, “Teaching Smart People to Learn,” Chris Argyris explains, “Our evolutionary fight-flee-or-freeze response is triggered by fear of failure and embarrassment which interfere with our ability to engage in creativity, critical and innovative thinking, and emotional engagement with others.”
This is the territory of learning for a leader — how do you invite feedback and stay present and open when hearing it?
People tend to defend, deny and deflect when presented with information that challenges their beliefs. And if you are protecting your ego, you won’t be open to learning a perspective that’s very different from your own.
Here are a few things you could try:
- If you don't understand the feedback you are receiving, ask the speaker to say it in a different way.
- Paraphrase and repeat back what you think the speaker is saying and ask if you’re hearing them correctly.
- While listening, become aware of your body reactions.
- Don't answer quickly; be quiet and reflect.
- Before engaging in an important conversation, ask yourself if you’re ready to be open-minded.
- In difficult conversations, before responding, thank the speaker for having the courage to speak up.
Leadership is a wonderful privilege that invites you to become more open and curious than you might be if you weren’t in a position of power and influence. Becoming more self-aware requires that you master appropriate self-disclosure and be more open to feedback. By quieting your ego, you will make room for other people to be great.