Great Leaders Have Big Egos…and So They Should

The question is does their ego serve the role they fill?

Or does their role serve their ego?

I believe a healthy ego is necessary for great leaders to lead well.

To fully inhabit a leadership role, we have to have a healthy ego in the form of confidence and self-esteem. Confidence and self-esteem allow us to fully step into our role without being distracted by the burden of our responsibilities and to focus on the broader mission.

People are inspired by those who are confident in their role. They are positively influenced by those who embrace their responsibility with ease. They gravitate toward those who model a strong sense of self-assuredness. Only then do they follow.

The bigger the leadership role, the healthier the ego required.

Take Lincoln, for example. The role of president at that inflection point in history called for someone with an extraordinary capacity for leadership. We were fortunate he stepped forward. Here was someone who could audaciously shoulder the burden, without making it about him. Someone who had a solid enough sense of self that he could inhabit the role of president to focus on getting the job done well. In this way, he was self-possessed and, at the same time, “selfless” in the role.

Great leaders have a keen sense of self and, at the same time, they are selfless. That is the paradox of their leadership.

Fast forward to today. I think Obama is similarly able to serve the role of the president without making it about him. I heard him speak locally the other day about the Affordable Care Act, and how he has no pride of authorship. In fact, he acknowledged having stolen the idea from Mitt Romney, who used the model when he was governor of Massachusetts. Obama was openly offering his support to anyone who could come up with a solution that improves on it. His ego is in service of a vision that is bigger than his “self”.

To be effective leaders, we have to have a healthy ego. One that doesn’t drive us to feed off of our role for self-confidence, self-esteem and identity. The challenge comes when we lack sufficient self-esteem or self-confidence and our ego needs are fulfilled by our role. At this point, we can easily become self-absorbed and narcissistic. People intend to serve us in our role, but they end up instead inadvertently and unknowingly serving our ego. And then no one is sufficiently focused on the mission. Our leadership—and our organization—suffer.

“For the want of a healthy ego, the battle was lost.”

So how healthy is your ego?

Next month…great visionary leaders.