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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Best Leaders Have the Smallest Egos

Earlier this week, I asked myself, "why is it that people with power and authority tend to be so toxic as leaders?"

I noted some common denominators. This is something it has taken me 35 years to compile.

Very often, many of the people who cannot work for others tend to covet positions of authority. Believing that they are superior-they find the means to obtain power and authority. Perhaps this means switching jobs, creating businesses of their own. Often they employ dirty tactics from "brown nosing" the boss or pointing out the flaws in others. Sometimes, they actually present themselves as great employees-constantly telling you in some subliminal fashion how good they are, hoping that their listeners agree. Very often, that act alone is successful. And thus they eventually find some fiefdom or niche with which to lord over.

All of this madness is of course, a function of ego. In fact- ego destroys the ability to lead effectively.

Years ago, I was introduced to the works and writings of Stephen Covey. I became a huge fan. Covey's leadership studies and models are excellent. Yet, I have seen very little of his works in actual practice. I'm not talking about pieces here and there. I am talking about somebody that has accepted Covey's teachings and committed to putting them all in to practice.

Smart man that he is, his works fail. It's not that Covey hasn't identified excellent characteristics in leadership, the problem is that his principles fail at implementation. People simply cannot or will not accept them. And why that is, is no longer a mystery to me.

It is and always will be a function of that false sense of self that people have about themselves, their fear driven egos. They simply refuse to accept that their opinion or belief about any given situation simply won't work for them. Thus they cater to the imagined fear that they are unique. Once an ego has established a belief, it is almost impossible for most to recognize it, let alone change it. Ego driven people are willing to argue ad nauseum about the most ridiculous and harmless points. Or given an obviously faulty or poor thought process they might say, "It doesn't matter whether I am right or wrong, I am the boss and you will do it my way."

That is sad. Bad bosses tend to always choose right over happy. They get to live with those choices.

And as those unconscious and ego driven souls go about their business, they treat others insensitively and with little compassion. Self absorbed and believing that they alone were conveyed to the top of the food chain because they are special or gifted, they impose their will on others. Some of the worst are demeaning and belittling. Lording over their workforce hostages. Willing to punish and sometimes publicly humiliate those that would dare disagree with them.

They become toxic. They are only minimally effective. As their inadequacies get exposed, they cling to fear and become more and more punishing as they try to hang on to the last vestiges of authority. Until it all ends badly for them.

I have seen many forms of ego in the workplace. At all levels. Nice guys do finish last. They don't covet power and authority and very often, they shun it. Nice guys don't treat others badly nor do they hurt people's feelings. All of those human traits that we hold in high esteem are evident in the best people. Compassion, understanding, tolerance, forgiveness. And every once in awhile, one of those types sneaks in as a boss.

If Covey could ever figure out a way of forcing leaders to expose their unconscious egos then his books would have a chance at making a significant impact. Absent that small miracle, it will be business as usual. Until then, those principles of leadership will remain fairy tales.