Ego: Destroyer of Worlds
Posted on January 1, 1970 by Blake Leath
Ego, "the 'I' that distinguishes us from others," including "our self-esteem and self-image," but also "our conceit and self-importance" is a tricky, tricky beast. A devil on our shoulder, a gremlin in the machinery.
On the one hand, it is necessary, essential. Without it, we are paper dolls, folded by the least life has to offer or brings our way. But too much of it and we are rigid, always right, enrobed in our self-righteousness and sense of entitlement or destiny.
In its extremes—too much and too little—it is as easy to spot as the peacock.
Too Little, Exhibit A: The abused, who apologizes for her abuse.
Too Much, Exhibit A: The tyrant, whose way is the only way.
In between, we find a diorama of figurines, from the insecure who, like the puffer fish, make themselves appear larger than they really are as an act of self-protection. Or bullies, the hyenas of humankind, who identify those whom they perceive as a step slower or out of sync with the herd, catching them alone at the watering hole or in a wild turn on an open field. Or the indignant. Or sometimes even martyrs, who originally felt called to champion a cause in someone else's name, or on behalf of others, but who may lose their way once they close their ears and become tone-deaf to the changing landscape or situation at hand.
There are dozens and dozens of archetypes smeared across our little stage, each of us having played many such parts in the course of our life.
I see it every day; we all do. For all his "honesty" and "straight talk," Donald Trump is periodically behaving rather badly: mean, divisive, sometimes employing hateful speech that borders on bullying, leaving very little room for the gray of life and which is, to my way of thinking at least, sexist, racist, superior, bigoted. I'm as ready as the next guy for a transparent leader, for spin-free and politics-free zones. Gosh, our country needs this desperately. We are lost; marooned. There is no America, just islands, camps, tribes, parties, factions, lobbyists, separatists. And Trump's absolutely right: political correctness can be a blight. But to lump entire people into categories, to deride said categories, to marginalize others, to be dismissive about what Warren Buffett succinctly describes as "the lottery of birth" (having been blessed, due to grace or chance alone, to be born in the United States or any progressive country) is absolute foolishness. Trump's name is so fitting, because his ego trumps everything. He appears to believe that he is right about everything and is equally intolerant of contrary opinions. I cannot fathom the circus his governance style would create. As much as people might like it to be the case, government does not operate like business. There are times I absolutely wish it did, but our government is a legislative democracy, not an autocracy or private venture or profitably oriented enterprise with shareholders and so, on the face of it, his approach will always be unsuitable. We need a statesman or stateswoman, but one who can, in fact, effect change to create unity, whether through the next figurative moonshot or something else larger than partisan politics.
But he is not alone, for if we are not careful, and when we are our worst selves rather than our best selves, a great many of us could be castigated for our example. It's not just politicians who believe they are above the law, or professional athletes, or celebrities. No, in a world that Andy Warhol would have loved, we are each enticed to create, proliferate, and maintain a cult of personality, be it through Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Tumblr or wherever.
And the irony is not lost on this writer, who named a company after himself.
But we shall get to that.
Whether we lack ego, and forfeit ourselves to others' pleasures or dominion, or overcompensate for our shortcomings by bullying, or believe we are the smartest person in the room...chosen, designated, called, destined, whatever...and adopt a narrow-minded and "me-centric" worldview, we all fall short.
When things must be our way, or our way is the only way, or our way is the right way, well, one's world becomes very tiny indeed. It is inclusion, involvement, collaboration, diversity, delegation, even situationally appropriate submission that returns oxygen to the room, enlarges the table, leads to variety and better ideas and more amazing outcomes.
The "heroic manager" (be it a command-and-control throwback to 1955 or Steve Jobs himself in his early days before his dismissal and wandering in the desert which led to contrition) is a dying breed. I still stumble across it now and again, but even in the military, and paramilitary organizations, and the church itself—organizations which have every right to practice bureaucracy, considering they are among our oldest and were originally designed as hierarchies—I see autocratic management becoming all the more passé. People are simply too aware, too educated, too empowered to abide it.
So where does this leave the leader? How does he or she strike the right balance, the right chord? How much ego is too little, and how much is too much?
As was put to me yesterday in conversation, "Perhaps like all things, Blake, it's a matter of moderation. One must constantly shift and find the right gear."
Well said. I couldn't agree more.
In hindsight, and with foresight, this is true. There are certainly issues in life which are black and white, but it is also true that most are quite complicated, and with complication comes different perspectives on the same issues, alternative paths up and out and, therefore, a whole lotta gray.
Among others, which are arguably too esoteric or spiritual for a business blog, two northern stars which have often guided my own sensibilities are derivatives of The Golden Rule and The Craftsman's Pride.
Regarding the former, I often ask myself, "In this situation, how would I want someone to treat my daughter? If she were to come home and share this scenario with me, to describe others' treatment of her, how would I feel about that, about them, about her behavior in this situation? And what would I do if the shoe were on the other foot...if I was 'the jerk' in her story?" It is true: only at my best am I so enlightened, but it's a star nonetheless, one which usually compels me to pause, to breathe deep, to ponder, and which later convicts me to re-think my ego, stance, position, or sense of self-righteousness or indignation.
Regarding the latter, a craftsman's pride, the company is called Leath Group because we are a group. And foremost, one that stands behind its work—so much so that we are willing to sign our name to it, like a silversmith or cobbler of old who put his initials on the bottom of his wares or inside a pair of boots he'd lovingly stitched. It's not ego behind the name, its personalization and accountability and a nod to simpler times. We could have named ourselves ACME Inc. or Consortium Consulting but, honestly, I prefer buying from Jim or Bob or Steve, not some faceless conglomerate, and so we began our work in that vein, and it stuck.
Our ethos, however, which may fly in the face of our branding—and gosh, I hope it does not—is generally one of anonymity. We are, at our core, creators and cultivators commissioned to plant and grow something small which, if successful, becomes our client's, not our own. Like any parent, our ultimate success and joy are best revealed in the well-being of our child. Try as we might, there are always genetics and internal/external forces beyond our control with which we must contend, but we strive mightily to be good examples, good role models, and to love unconditionally and without bias. To create great work products, deliver great services, then let them go.
Along the way, whether one is a politician, business leader, military leader, church leader, parent, you name it, one is constantly shifting gears while also remaining consistent and directed and pulled toward a northern star. This creates the much needed sense of stability, for oneself and others, while also fostering adaptability, malleableness, suppleness to bend in the wind without breaking.
To know oneself, one's strengths and weaknesses, and to be confident in his or her being, while also being willing to become invisible when it is the right thing to do, or to take the reins and grab the mic and take the stage when it is the right thing to do is precisely the shifting of gears that I'm describing. And as you know from personal experience, there is no rulebook, it is often gray, and it requires a deft touch, an ability to read the room and the situation, and the courage to vanish or show-up and absolutely represent.
Sometimes, it even requires we, as told to me by a former mentor, "Know when to lay it down and walk away."
I find, and perhaps you'll agree, that sometimes "the I" that is in each of us can become an Idol. Or, something that we do, or are, or perceive we stand for can become idolatrous because it means too much to us, it defines us, is addictive to us, or we cannot walk away from it when we should. We become obstinate, intractable, stubborn; we cannot let it go.
Consider these examples, all of which are complicated and have 50/50 sides:
If the day came, weeks or months from now, that Donald Trump found himself unsupportable or unelectable as the Republican nominee, would he fade quietly into the sunset, returning to his enterprises, supportive of those who remain, or would he bash the remaining and perhaps choose to run Independent, thereby splintering the country further and weakening his professed party in the process? In his rulebook, what comes first: self or the greater good? And what is right? Is there a right?
If a County Clerk found herself in violation of the Supreme Court's ruling and refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, should she stand her moral ground or yield to public opinion and let someone else do the job? What is right in this situation, who determines it, and what's the proper gear for the terrain? These are thorny issues for our Republic, the sort that define church, state, and the separation thereof.
If a hygienist in a dentist's office found herself to be the source of division and gossip, should she walk away for the health and betterment of the practice, or remain? Should she be loyal to the hand that feeds her, or loyal to her own personal convictions, cause, and sense of justice or injustice?
If a corporation becomes a cult of personality, or is represented in the public sphere by a spokesperson who generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue then does bad things in his or her personal life, should this person remain the spokesperson? What is the cost of collateral damage, the price of a corporate soul, and how does an organization tally it? There is a sea of examples to represent this conundrum, from Evel Knievel and Ideal Toys to Tiger Woods and Nike.
In each of these scenarios, one's ego is relevant. The candidate, the clerk, the employee, the representative: each is forced by circumstance to take stock, every conceivable path forward having gray alleys and obstacles, each alternative leading to personal consequences, some of which result in more or less polarization and none of which are simple, easy, or politically unambiguous.
In David Simon's HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero, Yonkers' mayor Nich Wasicsko initially finds himself victorious, largely because of an unpopular political issue, public housing, which creates an opportunity for him to be the alternative candidate and steal the race. Two years later, the same thing happens to him, and for six more years he pursues the idol of political fame and purpose, repeatedly falling short and, rather than simply walking away and starting a legal practice, he clings to the past, fails to see it for what it was, becomes chronically depressed, and takes his own life standing at his father's grave during the week of his final election loss. It is a searing, heartbreaking story; a Greek tragedy of epic proportion, but set rather intimately in the fourth most populous city in the state of New York.
Kenny Rogers crooned, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run." It's good advice, and we only wish the gears were thusly labeled. They are often inscrutable, caked in mud, clogged with debris from life's trails, and impossible to free.
I have walked away, and I have doubled down. I've won some, and lost many more. There were rarely buzzing, directional neon signs pointing the way; it was often a sense of intuition that necessitated a light touch (which is in contrast to being grabby-grabby, like the raccoon in Where the Red Fern Grows who won't release the shiny silver object within the log and gets scooped up by Billy and placed in a burlap sack). The illusions of power, of control are precisely that, as Anthony Hopkins reminds Cuba Gooding, Jr. in 1999's Instinct.
Most everyone learns this lesson, eventually. Our sense of importance, of power, they can become idols in our heart, things which over-inflate our sense of self, distracting us from what is right, or pure, or good. Virtuous.
Left to one's own devices, he or she can lose sight of the big picture, or the long game, or the fact that our lives are but brief sparks, and legacy casts the longer shadow.
So stand for something, and be up for something, possessing a strong and firm foundation of ego that is not subject to whims, or peer pressure, or bullying, or popularity, or the transient in life like fad or fashion, but also be as selfless as possible, as modest and humble and quiet in spirit, knowing that one's works and craftsmanship and contributions to others and to causes greater than oneself are what matter far more, benefit multitudes more, and ultimately lead to greater peace, fulfillment, and contentment in this world.