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Ego — Books on a bookshelf of a software manager

Photo: Creative Common License. Donald Clark.

When organizations look for leaders, not many would look for leaders with big egos. Yet when we look around, in companies or in society, we would undoubtedly label certain leaders as having big egos. Perhaps they’re somehow in their positions because their other qualities are more important to the success of the organization and people around them just learned to tolerate such behavior. Or perhaps they haven’t spent enough time doing self-introspection, and are completely oblivious to the fact that they are the egotistical maniac that everyone is pointing at.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other, J.F. Kennedy

As many of you know, I enjoy reading — I like learning from other people’s experiences so that I can be better without necessarily stumbling over the same obstacles that others have already written down. When I observed some obnoxious behaviors, I looked into myself and asked “Am I like that too? How do I make sure I won’t become like that”. This is how I got started reading about egotistical behaviors and writing down “note to self”.

On the topic of “ego”, part of the challenge is that the term is somewhat nebulous. I still remember a long time ago when I first encountered the word in a workplace setting, I was happily regurgitating to myself definitions like ID, superego and other concepts from my psychology classes. While that’s the root of how the term “ego” comes to be, clearly its application is now much broader.

The definition that resonates with me is illustrated by this article — an egotistical leader believes he/she is always right, and if there is data suggesting the opposite someone else must have been wrong. I once encountered a leader who tries to redefine a word in the dictionary to prove that he’s right (no this is not a language issue, he’s a native English speaker)! Knowing this, I constantly remind myself that I am not and should not be the smartest person in a room (and definitely not always right) — it is so important to actively listen to and trust the great people on the team.

Ego is the enemy of good leadership

This HBR article discusses why Ego Is the Enemy of Good Leadership. One practise that I agree strongly with is no matter how busy you are, always find time to meet with everyone on the team and surround yourself with people who are not afraid to show you that you’re wrong.

Leaders eat last

Lastly, as I was looking for reading material on how to prevent a ballooning ego from shaping, I thought of a book I read — Servant Leadership in Action by Ken Blanchard. The book is a compilation of essays written by great leaders on what it means to be a servant leader. Many emphasize that trusting the team is a prerequisite, and ultimately the leader’s ego is harmful to this trust. One of the essays was by Simon Sinek, where he talked about “leaders eat last” (he wrote an entire separate book on this topic). Certainly an egotistical leader wouldn’t eat last but believes it’s his/her birthright to be first in the buffet line.

Hopefully these reading material helps you too. Happy leading!

Originally published at

I'm an engineering leader in a SAS company with more than 15 years of software industry experience.

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