I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading lately about the challenges inherent within the Leadership Pipeline. While the linked article is now sixteen years old, commentaries continue to flood the leadership spectrum referencing the need for leaders to shift from working in to working on the business. Most of these articles state the need very well, describing the pitfalls if the shift does not occur – yet there are very few articles that address the underlying tension that many leaders grapple with… a tension that has only intensified due to increasing performance demands combined with reduced resources and a VUCA world. What is the source of this internal tension? It is linked to “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.” Otherwise known as the ego.
Gregg Henriques Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today, “The self-consciousness system is the narrating portion of human consciousness that reflects on one’s thoughts, feelings and actions and inhibits or legitimizes them to one’s self and to others. In this sense, ego is very similar to what is meant by the term identity…”
This notion of ‘identity’ comes up time and again as I work with clients who cognitively understand they need to shift their leadership approach, yet struggle to change as they smack up against the unconcious inhibitions manifested by their ego. Change itself is a catalyst, perhaps affecting the ego most during the middle phase of transition, described by William Bridges as the Neutral Zone:
“People go through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. It is when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place. It is the very core of the transition process. This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what the new roles will be, but it’s in flux and doesn’t feel comfortable yet.”
In my experience, I have observed the following beliefs that are often indicators that ego is inhibiting individuals from moving to a new level of leadership:
- When leaders see themselves as the expert.
- When leaders see themselves as a “go-to, get things done” person.
- When leaders believe that being a leader means having all of the answers, all of the time.
Each of these can wreak havoc with one’s ego. For example, if someone has established a significant part of their identity as an expert on developing code, and then must stop writing to lead a larger scope of the business, perhaps including some unfamiliar functions, it can leave a rather large gap in how he views – and values – himself. This gap in what has been a significant portion of our identity can make many of us feel quite vulnerable, as we let go of what is known, what is safe and secure, and transition into something – or someone – different. Even when a leader is fully aware that they are struggling to move forward, our ego can unconsciously dig in and hold on to behaviours and beliefs that no longer serve us.
A Senior Executive I am working with had (until recently) three direct reports. This Executive identifies herself as a “go-to, get things done” with “all the answers” individual. One way this identity manifests itself is in her insistence to attend every meeting her direct reports attend, to ensure things get done “quickly and correctly.” This, combined with other meetings, consumes virtually all the Executive’s time but she makes it work – or rather, she did. As the result of a retirement and restructuring, the Executive’s direct reports swelled from three to eight. Despite this marked increase, the Executive firmly resisted shifting her leadership approach. As you can only imagine, she is imploding and is pulling others with her. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however; with much effort, she has acknowledged that the issue – and the solution – rests with her. In doing so, she has also come to realize that the opportunity is not “better time management” or “more efficient scheduling” or a “new prioritization matrix.” It begins with her owning the fear she has about letting go of a significant part of her current identity. These are her first steps towards redefining herself as a leader in the organization, and in creating value in a different way.
If you see something of yourself here as you read and reflect on this article, take comfort in knowing that the ego’s resistance to change is normal. It is simply doing its job by attempting to protect us from what it perceives as harm. The key is to develop your awareness of your ego’s activity, so you can recognize it and determine if it is helping or hindering. Here are a few behaviours that may indicate your ego is fighting against change in a potentially unhelpful way:
- Being beyond busy – running from one meeting or problem to another.
- Not trusting others to get things right.
- Not asking others for their ideas or allowing them to happen.
- Sticking to what is tried and true.
More often than not, there is initial internal justification as to why these behaviours are required. With coaching, I have found that once people accept that their current way of leading is getting in the way of getting better at their job, they begin to open-up to the concern – the fear – hidden below the surface, often making its first appearance in the form of a question:
- What if people think I’m lazy?
- What if I don’t know the answer?
- What if people think I’m incompetent?
- What if things go wrong?
- What if I don’t know what to do?
It is at this point where we really begin to understand our ego; how it serves us with building confidence and clarity in our own identity – and in doing so, how it may also limit our ability to step into new and uncomfortable territory. It is also here, for those willing to lean in and do the hard work, that opportunity presents itself to evolve one’s leadership capability.
Using what we term at The Refinery as micro-practices, we can begin to move forward by practicing a new behaviour. The key here is to not try to boil the ocean. Rather, the goal is to identify something small that you can focus on, thereby allowing you to plan, practice, and review over time. For example, one Executive who was working to let go of “being the expert” began by simply committing to – only once per day – asking the question, “What do you think?” instead of giving an answer first. This was challenging in the beginning for both him and his team. However, over the course of about 6 weeks, he not only noted how comfortable he became with this approach, but also he noted a corresponding increase in his team’s autonomy, confidence, and performance. He began to expand his micro-practice, adjusting and adapting as he went, and over time began to realize that he had shifted his way of leading. Instead of giving answers, he asked questions, which in turn created a broader, strategic understanding of his business, enabling him to create value in a new way.
Making these shifts are not easy, but the effort is worth it. It can significantly reduce the odds of being torpedoed by the nefarious Peter Principle, allowing leaders to unlock new potential in themselves as well as others.
What is one small thing you can practice doing differently today in service of developing a new leadership identity?