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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

While a healthy ego is essential to any business success, it is the ability to balance ego and humility that leads to the most influential leaders.

Ego and Humility: Seeking the Right Balance for Business Success

Originally Published: 05 September 2012
Last Updated: 08 October 2022

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It takes a certain amount of ego to start a business, own a business, take a job as the president or CEO of a business - a healthy ego is a prerequisite to a lot of success stories. But what happens when that ego is out of control?

What happens when the personal maturity and wisdom of the business owner/leader/CEO are not equal to the task of leading employees with responsibility, empathy, and humanity?

A recent book by British Journalist Jon Ronson called The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness of Industry has even found that the incidence of psychopathy in CEOs is about four times that of the general population (4% versus 1%) - psychopathy primarily being characterized by lack of empathy, lack of guilt feelings, poor impulse control, inflated sense of self, etc.

In some cases those with out-of-control egos achieve huge financial results and market success, and are hailed as amazing business leaders - though Ronson suggests these are the anomalies, often representing short-term successes and longer-term failures. I continue to scratch my head about Steve Jobs. Of course he was wildly creative, but I just can't give him a hall pass for all the control-freakish, ego-fueled, belittling of others behavior he entitled himself to over his years at Apple. And of course, his ultimate business legacy is still undecided.

But let's not be fooled. For every ego-maniac who makes it to the heights of business, there must be 10,000 ego-maniacs who get in their own way so much that their businesses falter and fail. All of us have worked for one or more of them at some point in our careers, and if you have young adult children you've probably watched your kids suffer through at least one ego-maniac as well.

Why do I bring all this up? Because one of the most important things we as business owners can do is to constantly work on our own emotional health. When leading small teams of people toward challenging goals like positive cash-flow and profitable growth, it is essential to earn their trust and respect by being people worthy of those feelings. Of course, we all wake up on the wrong side of the bed or let our stresses get the best of us on occasion. But the more often that happens, the less our employees are capable of respecting us and rallying to our side.

Lack of ego strength shows up in a lot of different ways. The most obvious is a loss of temper or failure to communicate in respectful, civil ways. But condescension veiled in civility is almost as bad as a blow-up and ultimately leads to much deeper resentment than throwing a coffee cup. Failure to recognize that others' ideas are as good as our own - even if they are different; the inability to let others' find their own path to an agreed-upon desired end result; the need to tout our own superior concept even as we congratulate someone for their success; a tendency to discount another's intelligence or - God forbid - creativity; these are all indications of a lack of ego strength and examples of the types of behavior that lead our employees to give us less than their best.

A small business owner has immense challenges to overcome and very few resources to provide support. So here's a toast to self-awareness and emotional health - may we all find the balance between ego and humility necessary (in most cases) to achieve the long-term business success and retirement income we ultimately desire.