Ego Leakage

25 Mar 2016. Robert E. Kaplan

Does your ego leak, even a little?

Mine does. I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. I do notice a tendency to enthuse about something I’ve just experienced—an intoxicating live performance, an exceptional book, an Eureka moment—as if to persuade others to attach the same high value to it as I do. Writing essays like this is an example.

I’m fascinated, and sometimes put off, by ego leakage in its many forms—attention-seeking, self-importance, outsized self-concern.

Examples in leaders are oh-so-familiar.

There’s the name dropper. About one such individual it was said, “He overplays all the prominent people he knows. You feel like you don’t know anybody.” And there’s the “credentials dropper” who seems never to miss a chance to remind us of the fancy college or graduate school he or she went to. Granted, you may be impressed the first time it’s mentioned.

Similarly, there is the type that regales you with their life-long achievements. About one such a person, a coworker said, “You're on a plane with her and you hear a half dozen stories of what she has accomplished. I take it that she's proud of what she's done but it’s a bit much.”

Ego leaks for all to see when the leader’s speech is riddled with “I.” Which reminds me of the old joke about a meeting between two people, one of whom is an egomaniac who goes on endlessly about himself. Finally, he stops and says, "But enough about me. What about you—what would you say about me?”

Egos also are seen to leak in leaders who regularly show up in their manager’s office wanting to be patted on the head or to have yet another discussion of their chance of advancing.

Worse yet, there’s the leader who takes credit for other people’s work, steals it, which is also a breach of integrity. There’s the highly placed leader who out of sense of ego-entitlement mistreats lower-level service people; that’s also abuse of power. Cases like that are alloys; we’ll stick here to the pure case of being self-centered.

In people who wear their ego neediness on their sleeve, what exactly is the underlying need? Though we may not track it on a moment-to-moment basis that need is always switched on, activated. It’s a little like our own mortality. We cannot fail to know it but in the course of the day it’s not, if we have our health, uppermost in our minds.

Unbeknownst to most of us, our day-to-day language is riddled with words that speak to the underlying need. To be “seen”—to be acknowledged, recognized, to be somebody and not nobody. The word “respect” is a prime example. Its root is “see,” as in spectator, inspect, spectacles. The same is true of “regard,” as in being held in high regard. That word is from the French, regarder, to look at.

Fundamentally, it’s a desire to be valued, to have worth, almost in a monetary or economic sense. That sense is suggested by the word appreciation, the heart of which is “price.” The financial world sticks to appreciation’s literal meaning, to go up in price, but the rest of us broaden it to mean value. To show appreciation is to recognize the value of a someone’s good qualities or contribution.

Appreciation, expressed or not, is the highly sought-after intangible commodity of everyday life.

But grasping for it is self-defeating. Straining to score points loses points. Overreaching for credit discredits. At the very least it’s off-putting. It can even call the leader’s motives into question: given all the self-concern, is she or he fully committed to the organization? And those who go habitually to their manager for reassurance of their value are thought the less of.

Just as serious, though, is the lost productivity. Energy is siphoned off, wasted on egotistical displays and other self-serving activity. As opposed to being channeled into useful pursuits, accomplishments. For my work I’ve long wished for a scanning device, like a radioactive detector, that when held up to a leader gives an instantaneous reading on the percentage of that individual’s ego energy sent down each of those channels, productive versus self-serving.

Plain as day in other people, ego leakage is easy to miss in yourself and it takes courage to find out. That's why the anthropologist Ernest Becker, using a financial term, asserted that the toughest self-analytic task is to recognize how you purchase self-esteem.

Fix the leak by tracing it to the source even if, as I know in my own case, it’s not necessarily something you’re proud of. Then contain it, make the container leak-proof. Know it, stuff it.

Not only that. Redirect that energy. Send it down another channel. Other people also want to feel good about themselves, and you can help with that. And you’ll find, or know better, that that is its own reward.