Skip to main content

Ego can make or break you. Ego helps to build confidence, and that can be valuable. But when taken too far – overconfidence, obsession with self, heedless of others’ advice – ego can destroy you. The classic formulation to remember is Jim Collins’s accidental research discovery for his book Good to Great: Great leaders are humble and willful. Not just willful. Not willful and egotistical. Humble and willful, ambitious for their company not themselves.

Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman observes on the Scientific American blog that media debates he watches these days want to make his head explode: “All our egos are just too damn loud.” And those out-of-control egos we witness in the media probably contributes to our own manner when leading.

He defines the ego as that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light. And he points to an interesting paradox that echoes Mr. Collins’s finding: The more the ego is quieted, the higher the likelihood of actually reaching one’s goals.

“The self can be our greatest resource, but it can also be our darkest enemy. On the one hand, the fundamentally human capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control are essential for reaching our goals. On the other hand, the self will do anything to disavow itself of responsibility for any negative outcome it may have played a role,” he writes.

He promotes a “quiet ego” which he distinguishes from a “silent ego.” You don’t want to squash your ego completely and lose your identity. You want a more balanced position, integrating yourself and others. Psychologist Heidi Wayment and colleagues have been researching such an approach in which, they explain, “the volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”

I have been listening recently to Ronan Farrow’s mesmerizing podcast, Catch and Kill, which details the untrammelled ego of Harvey Weinstein. He was larger than life and could destroy careers of people who resisted him. Many powerful people are similarly out of control (if not sexual predators). But it’s easy to spot their foibles. Perhaps more difficult and important is to quiet our own egos, seeking that blend of humility and wilfulness. Veteran New Yorker editor David Remnick mentions how he asked the magazine’s most junior assistant editor to come to the first editorial meeting with Mr. Farrow, sensing although ultimately responsible, he could use help.

“If we can develop a truly humble attitude we can change the world,” Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote before becoming Pope. In Lead with Humility, Jeffrey Krames noted that at the moment the Pope was first presented to the world as the church’s leader, he declined the platform above the other cardinals and stayed at the same height. He also rejected some of the perks of office. “If you are fortunate enough to lead people, never use that position for selfish reasons. Take care not to do things that signal to your direct reports and other workers or colleagues that you are above them,” Mr. Krames writes.

Consultant Lolly Daskal says on her blog the first step to controlling your ego is to acknowledge and respect it. Don’t try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Understand how it serves you. She encourages you not to compare yourself with others; instead confine comparisons to your own ideals and aspirations. Also: Never stop learning. The smartest people know how much they have to learn.

I have been immersed in the learning process as a student and instructor for Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi. It’s fascinating to watch the struggles of people who are extremely successful in life and then find themselves fumbling with this tricky and confusing art. That leads me to think that some of the learning Ms. Daskal suggests you do would be best in areas where you are really lousy, and progress is slow. That would help quiet your ego back in the office.

As an instructor, I will teach people and then attend classes they teach, where I am simply a student and expected not to instruct. Sometimes it can be hard. Mostly it’s therapeutic – taming my ego and allowing a focus on learning. So that leads to another suggestion: Put yourself in positions where you are with colleagues but not taking a leadership role, simply following. It will quiet your ego.

Ms. Daskal says: “Great leaders understand that controlling their ego is a personal challenge that is critical to success, and it’s something they have to do themselves, every day. It’s the only way to build respect and trust with others.” Take up that challenge.


  • Are you undertaking diversification or diworsification? “Why is it that success causes us to stray from our main strengths,” asks entrepreneur Tim McCarthy. “Boredom? Arrogance?”
  • Innovation, innovation, innovation. The word is everywhere, as executives strut their stuff and authors try to catch a wave. But consultant Nadya Zhexembayeva urges you to stop using the word since research suggests people react negatively to it: You may love innovation but your employees loathe it. Replace it with words that suggest continuity and benefit.
  • Blogger James Clear says praise others – it will bring them peace of mind. But do not expect others to praise you. That attitude will being you peace of mind.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.