Stuff the Ego with Purpose

by Geof Lory

I have a problem. I mean it, I have a problem and it is me, or at least a part of me, according to Sigmund Freud. I continually struggle to act with egoless intent. It affects the quality of leadership I can provide and interferes with effectively building great teams. It can come out as blatant self-promotion on a bad day or well masked as enlightened self-interest on a good day, but in either case, unfortunately, "it's all about me."

In my defense, I have a few strikes against me. I was raised in an environment where I was fortunate to succeed often enough that my ego was more than sufficiently fed. And it grew and grew and grew. In spite of the best efforts by coaches and teachers to squelch my ego, it fed on the adversity. It's now my 800-pound gorilla and it has to be fed regularly.

The good news is that I have the problem. While I doubt I am alone with this malady, I know that only I can change myself. Actually, no one else is really interested in the job, except perhaps my wife and daughters. I am fortunate to have two daughters and a wife who know about my ego and have felt its edge on a number of occasions. As the girls get older, they have learned to see when it gets out of hand, and they are not afraid to let me know about it. I'm so lucky to have such a thoughtful family!?

I was recently trying to explain to my wife how I was justified in pushing my point on a particular issue that I knew she was wrong about. (Only a person with my ego would even dare do this! I have this over-riding obligation to enlighten others with my wisdom and insight, especially when I know I am right.) She wasn't buying it. In fact if I could bottle the look on her face, I would wear it as an after-shave and hopefully the scent would wake me up every time my ego reared its ugly head. Her comment was priceless. "Do you know you are not at your best when you think you are at your best?" Ouch!

I'm learning more and more just how ugly and counterproductive feeding the ego can be. In organizations, a certain amount of ego seems to come with the project management position or title. Often the ugliness follows shortly thereafter and an odd dynamic occurs. It would seem to be associated with the Peter Principle. It goes like this: "The greater authority a person holds the more they are removed from knowing what really needs to be done, but the more they are expected to make decisions about how things are done." Let's call it Geof's Corollary to Peter's Principle. (How's that for ego? I get to name the corollary after me!)

There also seems to be an axiom that is closely tied to this corollary. "One good idea wipes out a dozen bad ones and reinforces the belief that the project manager knows more than those who really do know." This axiom is propagated because unfortunately, anyone, even a project manager can occasionally stumble across a good idea, and it is exactly mishaps like this that have reinforced and fed my ego to the size it is today.

Ego is a funny thing. A little is a good thing, and may even be called confidence or self-assurance. Have a lot of it and it turns into arrogance, self-importance and pompous narcissism. As with so many other personal traits, the ego is a double-edged sword. Recognizing that it is both a blessing and a curse, but either way a part of who I am, is my first step in effectively dealing with it and attempting to strike the balance well, to say nothing about improving my family life. Ah, glorious awareness.

So now that I am aware, I have no excuse for not working on containing my ego. But it is not something that I would do just because, there has to be a good reason. A more desirable outcome. A purpose for it to serve. A way to turn the inward focus of the ego out. Hans Selye, who pioneered research on stress, refers to this approach as practicing "altruistic egotism." Richard Leider, in his book The Power of Purpose, calls it "living on purpose." Whatever you call it, it is not easy, but it is worthwhile and it can help squelch the ego.

In my role as a parent and in my role as a project manager, I find many opportunities that challenge my ego, and I am often faced with the consequences. My ego can stifle team creativity as well as my own individual creativity. Any time I narrow-mindedly press my position on an issue rather than explore the possibility that I could be wrong or that there might be a better way than my way, I close the team/family to the power of its own diversity. Ego closes options.

With three women in the house, you can only imagine how well received my egotistical male point of view might be. So I am learning to phrase my desires in a more open fashion and invite their youthful and female perspectives. (See my last article on reframing.) But mostly, I just try to be honest with myself. If I can examine my actions or comments and truly say that they are aligned with a positive outcome and not solely intended to bolster my ego, I figure that is a step in the right direction. And each step will move me closer to being a better father, husband and project manager.

So now, after all this talk about ego, I have a thought rambling around in the back of my head. Was writing this article an expression of my ego, or a true attempt to deflate it? How will I ever know? I'll let you be the judge.

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