I’ve seen a lot of bad leaders over the years. At times, I have been a bad leader – we all have. In almost every instance, the reason for failure in leadership comes down to ego, or the unwillingness to admit we don’t know everything.
I once had a boss who told me, “I don’t want to know what everyone else does, I want to know what we do.” That was a massive failure of leadership – the biggest I have seen in 25 years – in that what “we” did was about 20 years behind the rest of the industry, and just about everyone else was doing it better than us. Our company was literally ranked at the bottom of our space. We were so stuck in the 1990’s in terms of process and execution that we couldn’t get out of our own way. The reason we look at what others do is to emulate their success, and hopefully to craft it to our own culture and platform, and build upon it. When we don’t…that’s our ego talking. When someone else has blazed a trail, it is usually okay to walk in their footsteps. We choose not to because of ego.
No matter how good we are, there is always someone better than us. Someone who is doing it better than we are doing. Our egos however won’t always let us see that. We want to make our own mark on the world, not just copy what others are doing. That in itself isn’t such a bad thing. But emulating the best practices out there – and yes, I am talking largely in a business context this time – isn’t always “copying.” Sometimes it is reducing the curve, so to speak, and moving forward at an accelerated rate. I like to think of Mexico and their phone system. For a while there, and it may still be the case, they had a digital network that was better than the United States. Why? Because they jumped the curve. Someone else went before them, and they moved right into the “next generation,” largely skipping antiquated copper lines and moving fast into the future. I have seen other countries and cities do the same thing. Emulating those that have success is not a bad thing.
Where I haven’t seen it as often is in organizational leadership. The examples I have of people wanting to stay in the crowded ocean as opposed to exploring the blue empty one tend to outnumber the the good side. I have been guilty of it myself, and there is a reason for it. It’s called safety. “But we’ve always done it this way.” We return to what we know because it is safer to do so. It’s worked before, so why not try it again.
The answer is because what worked 20 years ago is likely not on the cutting edge of where we want to be today. Customers change. Our relationships evolve. At some point solving for the present requires us to be different, and to think differently. We don’t do this because of ego. An example I have from my historic industry is speed. Twenty plus years ago customers wanted to be served in 90 seconds or less. Today every study suggests that 71% of people want to be served in less than 10 minutes, and that their trade off expectation is better food and better service. Yet so many companies are still chasing speed – even though their loyalty rates are in the dirt. That is a failure not only to recognize differences in consumer trends, but also a failure of imagination. That is the death of good leadership. Don’t go there.
Ego, however, doesn’t have to be your enemy. Being aware of how it can impede progress is very important, because our own pride and sense of self-worth is irrevocably tied to it. If the definition of meaning and purpose lies in our accomplishments, then it has to be. But opting for the safety of yesterday just because it worked before is rarely the answer. We don’t have to all be Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, but using the thrust of our desire to try to be, which stems from ego, is a key leadership trait that should be harnessed. The difference lies in the ability to distinguish between wanting to win and wanting to actually be great.
Harness your ego. Respect it and use it for motivation. But don’t let it be the determinant factor of your outcomes. Relying on your ego as a guide can be good, but letting it cloud your judgment or your creativity rarely results in a win. It may feel like it for an instant, but in the long term you are likely doing more harm than good – both from a leadership standpoint and in how others perceive you. Desire to be great, rather than believing the safety of yesterday is the way you get there. Don’t be afraid to have the humility to say, “Hey, they got it right, let’s try what they did.” That isn’t copying. That’s intelligence.
Your ego can be used to accelerate your performance, or it can hinder it. We are all guilty of both sides of that; to say anything else is, well, your ego talking.