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How Managers Can Avoid Letting Their Egos Get in the Way of Effective Leadership

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Apr 16, 2024

GettyImages-1143297123 Company Meeting Woman Business Boss Board

Some business leaders employ a variety of coping styles to counteract feelings of imposter syndrome, resulting in “executive ego dysfunction,” strategy consultant Steve Dennis wrote in Fast Company. They can become perfectionists, rugged individualists, experts or superheroes. But such coping styles—driven by a need to be right—can get in the way of effective leadership and transformation efforts, Dennis wrote. There are other ways to achieve positive results.

“As leaders, much of our compensation (both monetary and psychological) comes from being right,” he wrote. “But there’s a problem with being right.”

“[B]ecoming overly attached to the outcome” in the form of assuming one has all the answers, can result on closing oneself off to other points of view or other more valuable possibilities, he wrote. "Being much less certain that we have all the answers may not be celebrated in most corporate cultures, but it is necessary to get better results from your innovation efforts. It also has the side benefit of decreasing the odds that you will drive yourself and those around you insane."

It is wise to be uncertain, he wrote, even if “wavering is seen as weakness.” He elaborated, “Absolute certainty does not exist,” and “[e]mbracing uncertainty creates a sense of wonder, of discernment, of curiosity—all incredibly valuable skills for driving creativity and seeing a wider range of options and actions.”

Rather than attempting to become more certain, Dennis suggested that leaders unlearn what they believe to be unchangeable so that infinite potential has a chance to reveal itself by means of what Zen Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind means letting go of certainty and taking on an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of bias when studying, much as a beginner would, he wrote.

Citing the words of Warren Buffett, Dennis warned leaders not to discount the role blind luck plays in their good fortunes, specifically the time, place, and conditions under which they were born. Along these lines, Dennis mentioned a quotation attributed to football coach Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” While it's possible that some successful people "weren’t born into a position of considerable privilege and that literally everything good that’s ever happened to [them] is completely a function of [their] hard work, resilience, genius, and devastatingly charming personality," he said that such a scenario is unlikely.

“Is it just possible that someone else did all the right things, just like you, but things turned out very differently for them?” he asked, rhetorically.

Vulnerability is also a concept that Dennis broached. For him, vulnerability is “having the emotional courage to expose myself and be seen for who I really am and what is really going on with me.”

“[F]ailure to be vulnerable closes us off from so many possibilities,” he wrote. “I wholeheartedly believe that to create the foundation for meaningful transformation, we must make the shift from closed to open, from protective to vulnerable.”