Cees ‘t Hart was given a key card on his first day as CEO of the Carlsberg Group, a multinational brewing and beverage firm, by his assistant. The card prevented access to any other levels by elevator, allowing him to proceed directly to his 20th-floor corner office. And his office’s picture windows provided a breathtaking view of Copenhagen. These privileges of his new job reflected his authority and influence inside the organisation.
The following two months were spent by Cees adjusting to his new responsibilities. Throughout these two months, he observed, however, that he encountered relatively few individuals during the day. As the elevator did not stop at other levels and only a few executives worked on the twentieth floor, he seldom socialised with other Carlsberg employees. Cees opted to move from his corner office on the 20th floor to an open-floor plan desk on a lower floor.
When queried about the changes, Cees responded, “If I don’t meet individuals, I won’t find out what they believe. And if I don’t have my finger on the organization’s pulse, I cannot successfully lead.”
This narrative is illustrative of a leader’s efforts to minimise the risk of isolation that comes with holding top positions. This danger is a significant concern for top management. In summary, when leaders advance through the ranks, their likelihood of developing an inflated ego increases. And as their egos expand, they run a greater danger of isolating themselves, losing contact with their coworkers, the culture, and eventually their clientele. Let’s examine this dynamic in detail.
When we ascend the ranks, our power increases. People are hence more inclined to desire to satisfy us by listening more closely, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes. All of them are ego-pleasing. When the ego is stimulated, it expands. David Owen, a former British Foreign Secretary and neurologist, and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University, refer to this as the “hubris syndrome,” which they define as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power that has been associated with overwhelming success, held for an extended period of time.”
Unchecked ego may distort our vision and ideals. According to Jennifer Woo, CEO and chair of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, Asia’s largest luxury retailer, “the first task of every leader is to manage the ego’s desire for wealth, fame, and power.” When we are overcome by the ego’s need for more power, we lose control. Ego makes us prone to manipulation, limits our range of view, and corrupts our conduct, forcing us to frequently behave against our ideals.
Ego is like a target that we carry around with us. As with any target, the larger the target, the more susceptible it is to being struck. This makes it simpler for others to take advantage of us. Our ego’s desire for positive attention might leave us vulnerable to deception. It creates predictability. When others are aware of this, they might appeal to our ego. We end up making mistakes that may be destructive to ourselves, our people, and our business when we are led astray by our own need to be viewed as exceptional.
Moreover, an inflated ego corrupts our actions. When we feel we are the sole builders of our success, we are more inclined to be impolite, self-centered, and interruptive. This is particularly true while facing obstacles and criticism. In this approach, an inflated ego inhibits us from learning from our mistakes and erects a defensive barrier that makes it harder to value the valuable lessons we gain from failure.
Lastly, a bloated ego restricts our perspective. The ego continually seeks information that validates its own notions. Essentially, a large ego causes a significant confirmation bias. As a result, we lose perspective and enter a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we desire. As a result, we lose touch with the people we manage, the culture of which we are a part, and, ultimately, our clients and stakeholders.
Important and difficult tasks include overcoming an excessively guarded or inflated ego and avoiding the leadership bubble. It demands altruism, introspection, and bravery. Here are a few helpful suggestions:
The inflated ego that accompanies success — the larger pay, the nicer office, the easy chuckles — frequently leads us to believe that we have discovered the ultimate solution to being a leader. In actuality, though, we have not. Leadership is about individuals, and individuals change daily. If we feel that we have discovered the universal key to leading others, we have lost it. If we let our ego to decide what we see, hear, and think, we have allowed our previous success to hinder our future success.