I felt like Jane Goodall watching the wild chimpanzees at play. Between bouts of running, jumping, and kicking, there were raucous outbursts of joyous sounds interspersed with the agitated shrieks of the adolescent males, pounding on their chests and attempting to exert their dominance over the other burgeoning adult apes.
Only this wasn’t a zoo, and it certainly wasn’t the wilds of Tanzania. Nope, this was my Saturday as a (reluctant) member of a coed kickball team playing in a local charity tournament. And these weren’t adolescent apes, but full-grown adult men.
Yes, I know, your first question is why in the world I was playing kickball at my age. My body’s asking me the same question today! Let’s just skip that question, okay?
Your second question might be what the point of this post is….
How often are our actions pulled down below the most optimal level because we irrationally respond to the urgings of our own egos? As leaders, how much less efficient and effective are we when we allow ourselves to sink to that level? And believe me, we’re all guilty of it from time to time…
“It’s not the dogs in the fight that matter, but the fight in the dogs.”
Yep, more than once, I’ve bought into the philosophy 100%, often to the detriment of my effectiveness.
I’ll admit it. I’ve been there. And for me, it often comes out most vividly on the “field of athletic competition.” In college, it was on the gridiron. More recently, I’ve succumb to the temptation on the ice hockey rink. Call it trash talking, taunting, or merely childishness. In the past, I chalked it up to the need for extra “scrappiness” that comes from being a 5’10, 170 lbs, wide receiver getting knocked silly when sent repeatedly across the middle of the field into the bruising shoulders of a blood-thirsty linebacker. But let’s call it for what it was (and is)…an irrational need to demonstrate competence or worth when faced with stronger, more dominant forces. Sometimes, it completely undermined what I was trying to accomplish….
Sometimes the tendency to act egoistically can be overpowering. We dig in our heels, refusing to admit we’re wrong, simply to save face. At times, it means we adopt that dreaded “smartest one in the room” syndrome out of fear that admitting our own relative ignorance may be perceived as individual leadership failure. And simply knowing that outside (of us) observers are immediately aware of our posturing often isn’t enough to prevent us from stomping into this goopy quicksand. Nope, we stand there, prancing and sinking deeper and deeper until only our eyeballs are visible. Ugh!
So, how do we resist the “urge” to posture? I’d argue that sometimes we can’t completely resist. But we can set up mechanisms for helping us recognize “in the moment” when we’re demonstrating such a tendency. For me, that includes asking trusted colleagues (or teammates on the athletic field) to discreetly signal me when they observe my ineffectual habits raising their ugly heads.
For leaders who have such a trusted confidante on their team (typically, it’s best if this individual is a peer), this strategy can help ward off these destructive traits creep into situations. Others have other tricks, but this is one that has worked for me and many of my coaching clients.
What are some other strategies for keeping one’s ego in check?