Working with Ego
Kim Payton, Ph.D.
There comes a point in many people’s lives when we realize how destructive the ego can be, can destroy relationships, distort decision making, ruin careers and marriage. This is particularly the case for leaders, or anyone in a position of power, because power is a powerful poison, which inflames the ego and can cause it to grow to monstrous proportions.
The bad news is, the ego does not seem to disappear, even for those who work hard to over come it. It does seem to be possible to grow beyond a life that revolves around ego, and rise above it if we can cultivate the perspective within us that makes it possible to control the ego, rather than be controlled by it.The first challenge is to realize that we have an ego, and that we are not that ego.
The ego, that voice that is constantly talking to us in our heads, wants to believe it is real, wants to believe that it and “I”, are the same. Some say what the ego really wants is to be God. So the first step is to develop some degree of separation from the ego, the ability to observe it, to “catch it in the act”, and to thereby realize that “I” and my ego are not the same. I have an ego. I am not my ego.
The key to working effectively with ego is self observation, the ability to be aware of what one says, to be aware of what one is thinking and feeling. If we can cultivate this awareness, we can catch the ego in action, for instance, wanting to take credit for the good things that happen, and avoiding blame for mistakes, wanting to have its own way, taking indignant offense to criticism.
Two Kinds of Ego
It is worth differentiating at least two kinds of ego. There is the body ego, which evolves first as the child realizes that it is physically separate from others. There is something in us that wants to know what it is, and it pursues this question through identification. “I am this”, and “I am not that”. This urge for identification creates a sense of self, and that “self” becomes a center of integration, providing focus for our perceptions, motivations and actions. The body ego is called by some the “material self”, which relates to the world as objects. It has no sense of other people as human beings and is therefore capable of great cruelty. It wants to own, dominate, eat, or have sex with all of its objects of interest. Many people are dominated by the material self, willing to do whatever they have to, to fulfill their impulses. In one tradition, this ego is called the “self that compels to evil”, characterized by the urge to take, to acquire, to
The second kind of ego is the mental ego, which is the source of the voice that talks in our head. This is the “right –wrong ego”. It wants to believe it knows what is right, and delights in seeing others as being wrong. The mental ego has very important functions, such as motivating us to behave in accordance with its beliefs. In a normal, mature person, the mental ego is capable of controlling the powerful urges of the material self. The mental ego motivates our competitive behavior in its desire to control, to be right, to fulfill its goals. The mental ego has its downside, however, because it sees the world only from its own point of view. It has a much greater sense of the reality of others than does the body ego, but it lacks true empathy. The mental ego will treat others well to further its own aims, but it is not motivated to help others for their benefit. It seems that there is another part of us that has that capability.
The Key to Overcoming Ego
The real key to overcoming the ego is a conviction, based on experience, that there is something in us that is beyond the ego, a part that is capable of making sacrifices for the good of others, that can see beyond our mental ego’s perspective in our moments of the “big aha”, a part that experiences a sense of unity with other people, with nature, and, perhaps beyond nature. This part of us part of us has been called “soul”, the “true self, “the actualized self”, “higher self” and “the individual”. It is said that it is this part that is capable of true happiness. Consider those, perhaps rare moments in which you are aware of being aware, not lost in rushing, or worrying, or justifying, rationalizing, not lost in the past or future, present in the moment. It does not matter what one is doing or experiencing in these moments, the content is not what makes the moment so precious. It is the quality of the experience, the richness, the perspective, the depth of understanding and feeling, the exquisite beauty of the moment, that convinces us that this level of life and experience is available to us. It is this experience that can motivate the pursuit of a life beyond the ego, because this is the direction of true quality, peace, and fulfillment.
There are at least three components to the work of intentionally evolving beyond the ego.
The first is a clear, strong, persistent intention to overcome the limitations of ego. It must be in whatever form that intention takes, central to our life goal. Otherwise the impulses of body ego, and the preferences of the mental ego will prevail and determine our life’s course. The higher part of us must be given a central place of respect around which we can then build our character, the attributes of our higher self.
The second is the capacity to “catch” moments of self-awareness, moments when we are aware that we are aware, moments in which we hear what we are saying, feel an arising emotion, and experience the thoughts that generate the emotion. This capacity is called mindfulness, the ability to be present in the moment, aware in the external world, or our senses, and simultaneously aware in the inner world, of the inner experience that the external stimuli have triggered.
The third is the ability to act on the moment of awareness. We may be in a challenging situation, and we are aware of the rising frustration. We can hear thoughts forming in the mind that want to be said, but the awareness in us knows that this is a thing that should not be said, so we choose to be silent, or we choose a more productive response. This is the difference between reaction, which is the automatic functioning of the body ego and mental ego, and a response, which is the intentional act of the something that is higher in us.
Here are some very concrete, nitty gritty, practical ways to engage in this work.
When something good has happened, observe the tendency to want to take credit, and see if there is a way to share the credit, or give it away.
When something goes wrong, observe the tendency to blame someone else, and see if there is a viable perspective from which you see your own culpability in the matter.
Watch for those moments when you recognize the need of another person, and stay present with the perception long enough to consider the importance of their need, and then choose what to do. These can be very challenging moments that present the opportunity to rise above the control of the ego. For instance, imagine it is a late night, you have come home from work exhausted, every fiber of your being just wants to rest, and the phone rings, your friend has some trouble, and needs your help. Do you have the time for your friend?
The Big Challenge
Evolving beyond the ego is, apparently a rare thing for human beings. Most of us are lost in the ego, believing what we think, lost in our impulses, believing our own press about ourselves and life. Probably the biggest reason why we don’t make progress, though is what we see when we “wake up”. When we begin to develop the capacity to see the workings of our impulsive body ego and our judgmental mental ego, we begin to see those aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to see: our selfishness, pettiness, shallowness, deceitfulness. It takes a lot of compassion for the human condition to stick with the work long enough to establish a foothold in that next level of identity where life is more real, where we are more compassionate, and in which it is possible to truly engage with others in a collaborative way.
Implications for Leadership
The higher one rises in leadership, the more important it is to work on ego. Studies have revealed an inverse relationship between power distance and empathy. The higher one rises, the more likely the individual will become increasingly insensitive to the perspectives and feelings of others. Considering the complexity of the issues facing leaders, an unconscious blindness to the perspectives of others who have differing perspectives can result in disastrous decisions.
This trap is particularly dangerous at senior levels of leadership, where subordinates manage the perceptions of their boss carefully, in some cases out of fear, and in other cases because they don’t want to disappoint their boss. The only way to avoid this trap is to surround yourself with people who are better at what they do than you are, and then create the conditions of safety required to say whatever is necessary for the good of the organization.
We are living in a world in which collaboration is increasingly necessary. The big problems must all be solved by entering into true partnership with others. What stands in the way is ego. The true test of leadership these days is learning to grow beyond the ego to a place where true service in leadership is possible. Robert Greenleaf described this kind of leadership in his essay on “Servant Leadership” which is leadership dedicated to benefitting others, not ourselves. He called it. Collins in his study of great leaders who took their organizations from “Good to Great” reported these leaders all share the same quality. They had a combination of “fierce resolve” and humility. They were, as he calls it “ambitious for others.
Here is a final suggestion for working with ego in leadership. Pay attention to the inner condition that arises when others present a perspective you don’t want to hear. What do you communicate in word, action and manner? Are you able to rise above the ego’s desire to discount or silence that with which it does not agree? Can you, in those circumstances create the safety required for people to tell you what you need to know, but do not want to hear?