Don’t Let Your Ego Stop You from Becoming a Servant Leader

February 22, 2018 David Witt

More than 6,300 people have registered for our Servant Leadership in Action Livecast coming up on February 28.

That’s a lot of people!

I think the event is popular because people recognize we are in desperate need of a new leadership model—one that recognizes that people lead best when they serve first.

(For more information about the Livecast, keep reading.)

We have all seen the negative impact of self-serving leader behaviors. So why does this type of leadership continue to be so prevalent in today’s organizations?

In my experience, self-focused leadership is always caused by an overactive ego—one that is driven by comparative feelings of being either more than or less than others. Once you fall into one of these traps, you spend your time trying to either prove how smart you are or win the favor and approval of others.

One of my favorite books on this topic is Egonomics by David Marcum and Steven Smith. They identify four warning signs of an overactive ego that could undermine an executive’s career.

Seeking acceptance: These leaders become overly concerned with what others think, which keeps them from being true to themselves. They tend to play it safe, swim with the current, and restate others’ ideas instead of coming up with their own.

Showcasing brilliance: These leaders go beyond sharing their thoughts—they want their intellect to be the center of attention. When showcasing is allowed or encouraged, the casualty is collective wisdom. Paradoxically, the more leaders show off their brilliance, the less likely people are to listen.

Being comparative: Instead of focusing on their own personal best, these leaders feel a need to compare themselves with others. Excessive comparison turns colleagues into competitors—and competitors are not effective collaborators. Comparing strengths to weaknesses leads to either excessive self-confidence or feelings of inadequacy.

Being defensive: Instead of defending an idea, these leaders behave as if they are defending themselves personally. They focus on proving their case and deflecting alternative points of view. These leaders resist feedback and brush off mistakes to the degree that conversations with them become superficial.

The goal is not to remove ego from the equation completely—it is to keep it in balance. Marcum and Smith recommend that leaders develop their humility, curiosity, and veracity. The objective is to achieve and maintain an intelligent self-respect and genuine confidence.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies another way leaders can keep their ego in check: focus on something bigger than themselves. Collins suggests a special type of leader who builds enduring greatness through a combination of personal humility and professional will. He describes this type of leader as a Level 5. Of special note is the underlying principle Collins sets forward—leaders at all levels need to put organizational, department, and team goals ahead of their personal agenda.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of your good intentions. Practice humility and self-acceptance. When you are able to love and accept yourself with all of your imperfections, you can do the same for others. You’ll be surprised at how well people will respond when you get your ego out of the way. People already know you’re not perfect—it’s when you become vulnerable enough to admit it that the magic will happen in both your personal and professional relationships. As Colleen Barrett, former president of Southwest Airlines and servant leader extraordinaire, says, “People will admire your strengths, but they will respect your honesty regarding your vulnerability.”

PS: Interested in learning more about servant leadership? Join us for the Servant Leadership in Action Livecast on February 28. The event is free courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies. Twenty servant leadership experts—authors, CEOs, and thought leaders—will share how servant leadership concepts work in their organizations and how you can be a servant leader in your workplace. You can learn more here!

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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