Best Practice
June 26, 2012

Finding your ego equilibrium

The Well-Balanced Leader
Ron Roberts
McGraw-Hill, 256 pages, $30.95

    
Ego can do us in. It can lead to arrogance, blindness, and a destructive relationship with those we need to help us attain success. At the same time, ego can make us successful. It gives us the self-confidence and self-esteem we need to push ahead with our ideas and to forge healthy relationships with others.

Too much ego and we can run aground. Too little, however, and we can also run aground. We need the right balance.

Consultant Ron Roberts calls that balance Egolibrium. “Egolibrium helps you get unstuck from the disabling power of the ego,” he writes in The Well-Balanced Leader. In effect, it’s the balance between ourselves and others. It’s the ability to toggle back and forth between ego-centric and other-centric attitudes, values and behaviour.

Other-centric means that the world does not revolve around you. By paying attention to others, Roberts argues that paradoxically you will become more in touch with your true self. “Having a clear perspective about your importance (or lack thereof) in the bigger picture and larger scheme of things within your workplace is the sign of a great leader,” he says. He sees great leaders like astronauts circling the earth in a state of weightlessness, aware of how small they are in the larger scheme of the universe. That gives them high levels of objectivity and detachment, and can make them more authentic.

At the same time, great leaders need conscious awareness. They strive to become more conscious of what drives them and what determines how they relate to others. He says such leaders constantly move from an unconscious state where they have lack of awareness and are controlled by ego to fully conscious when they are in touch with their inner authentic self. Switching metaphors for this element of success, he says “some leaders are as unconscious of their egos as fish are of the water that surrounds them. Great leaders work to remain conscious of the invisible unseen ego.”

Balance is needed. That means thinking about the repertoire of responses available in any situation and acting on them as required. It means not acting compulsively or automatically. It means not going to extremes, without careful consideration. “Balanced leaders think about the results of their behaviour before acting or speaking,” he says.

And he offers yet another metaphor: great leaders are like acrobats on a trapeze. They know where their own center is, and are always conscious of their circumstances and surroundings. Even when things seem to be spinning out of control, they remain balanced, poised and nimble. They are prepared to change and always land on their feet.

If that seems too general, he gives more clarity by identifying nine behaviours where this balance must be sought. In each, there is an ego-driven approach that we can easily succumb to, and, alternatively, an other-centric approach. Egolibrium means finding a proper balance.

Here are those behaviours, with the ego-centric instinct listed first:  

  • Judgmental versus nonjudgmental. Many leaders make snap decisions, without the facts, going on their emotions and beliefs, and ignoring people around them. They are also eager to criticize others, as a way of elevating themselves. Great leaders, on the other hand, see things in an open, clear, non-judgmental manner looking at all sides of a decision. To learn how to tolerate increased levels of criticism, he recommends sitting with a trusted friend and making a list of the criticisms that are true about each of you, starting with the mildest. Then have the friend read them in a quiet, calm voice, followed by a discussion of how you feel as you hear the list and whether the friend feels the criticism is warranted. Repeat this every week, until desensitized.
  • Defensive and closed vs. non-defensive. Defensiveness compounds other mistakes, as we err and then dig in our heels. “The ego-driven defensive leader builds interpersonal walls, displays deadly silo thinking, and can even generate full-blown turf wars,” he writes. Instead, we must strive to be open, maintaining a broad frame of reference, and adapting ourselves to people, processes and situations. To become less defensive, try this affirmation he shares: “If I am honest with myself and listen to others’ feedback humbly, I have nothing to defend!”
  • Controlling vs. relinquishing control. Many leaders are over-controlling, micromanaging subordinates and forcing their will on others. That inevitably leads to low morale, as well as poor communications and a culture in which folks are afraid to take risks. “Paradoxically, it is only by relinquishing control that leaders can ever achieve the kind of control that is the mark of great leaders,” he says. If this is a problem area, you may want to consider his claim that the ability to relinquish control is the major difference between people who are leaders and people who are managers, as well as the crucial marker between average and great leaders. The affirmation here: “I know that I get better results and better performance from staff members when I relinquish control.”
  • Know-it-all vs. open to learning. No leader knows everything. It’s therefore vital to be open to learning more. When organizations have leaders who are closed to learning more, you get disasters like NASA’s space shuttle and the O-rings. “How open are you to learning from others’ advice and ideas?” he asks. “Do you share your own knowledge with others, or do you feel the need to hold back the information for your own benefits? Are you able to learn from your own mistakes and understand that embracing failure brings you one step closer to success?” He urges you to practice being transparent and to invite your colleagues to join you in this quest for greater openness.
  • Doing whatever you want vs. doing the right thing. As leaders rise to the top of the hierarchy, they can feel invincible, convinced they can do anything they want. But great leaders adhere to solid principles, whatever dizzy heights they achieve. They are humble, have the willpower to control their feelings and actions, and can delay gratification. “They choose convictions over desires, will over emotions, clear thinking and self control over the easy way out. They do the right thing consistently,” he says.
  • Impatient vs. patient. Speed is a virtue in today’s world while patience has become a sin. The result is that too many managers are ferociously impatient, over-scheduling people and processes. But Roberts insists you’ll get further if you can be patient, flexible and adaptable. Aim for small successes in short periods of time, encouraging initiative and gaining greater group buy-in. Avoid the frantic, panicked atmosphere of too many modern workplaces. The guiding principle, he says, should be: “patience gives you power over time. Impatience gives time power over you.”
  • Holding on vs. letting go. It’s important not to hold on to attitudes and values past their useful date. “Although, at times, it is necessary and even admirable for leaders to stick to their goals and hold to a course, they must also be able to face reality and let go when that’s what the organization needs,” he says. As an exercise, think about two or three areas where you have done things “the way they have always been done” just f

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