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The most effective leaders will also be egoless

I once worked at a plant where a sinkhole formed in the parking lot. We asked a geologist to test for sub-surface issues under the building and recommend fixes.

Halfway through the geologist’s subsequent presentation, our CEO jumped up, scrawled a few lines on the poster-sized survey, nodded decisively, and said, “There. That’s all we’ll need to fix.”

Taken aback, the geologist started to respond. “Thanks for your time,” our CEO interrupted, nodded dismissively towards the door and turning to face the rest of us.

“Next topic,” he barked.

Granted, our CEO was a smart guy who knew a lot about many things. But he knew nothing about sinkholes, or geology, or the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks by suffosion processes.

What he did know is that he didn’t want to pay to fix a massive sinkhole problem. He was motivated to come to a certain conclusion. He was smart enough to think highly of his opinion.

And he was foolish enough to think authority automatically confers wisdom; that having the right – to speak, to decide, to have the last word – means being right.

The Ego Truly Is the Enemy*

Good leaders are decisive. Good leaders are confident. Good leaders stick to their guns, even when – especially when – others doubt them.

Great leaders tend to possess those attributes… and yet, while it sounds contradictory, are also willing to admit their failings, shortcomings, and weaknesses.

As Daniel Coyle points out in his outstanding book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, the most important thing a leader can say is, “I screwed that up.”

Admitting a weakness doesn’t make you weaker; admitting a weakness makes your team stronger. As Daniel writes, “… strong culture can only happen when its members feel safe enough to tell each other the truth.”

That process starts when leaders admit, through words and actions, that they don’t have all the answers.

Admit you don’t know, and employees feel safer about admitting they don’t know. Admit to a mistake, and employees feel safer about admitting their own mistakes.

The result is a self-reinforcing vulnerability loop: An environment and culture where people feel comfortable having what Daniel calls “high-candor exchanges that build trust and drive performance.”

For example, take decisions. Sometimes the most important decision is deciding who should make a particular decision. Admit you aren’t the best person to decide – because others have more direct experience, more direct knowledge, or a greater stake in the outcome – and employees feel safer admitting they may not be the best person to make a decision.

Even though they are “in charge.”

Or take staffing. Many leaders let their egos convince them they need direct authority over every function. Yet many tasks fall outside their area of knowledge or expertise. If you’re in manufacturing, should you try to manage one programmer… or outsource that function to a firm with the skills, knowledge, and experience to manage the outcomes you need? If you have one person handling receptionist/external contact duties, should you try to manage that person… or outsource the function to a firm with the skills, knowledge, and experience to manage the outcomes you need?

As Moneypenny Group CEO Joanna Swash, who feels strongly passionately that businesses of any size should ‘stick to their knitting’, says, “Focus on what you’re really good at –  and let experts help take care of the rest.”

Making a decision isn’t an outcome; making the best decision is an outcome. Managing isn’t an outcome; getting results is an outcome.

Outcomes that you can only fully achieve when you set your ego aside.

The Egoless Leader

Smart people are naturally better at constructing convincing arguments that support things they believe (or sometimes even just want) to be true.

Smart people are better at “gist reasoning,” the process of using intuition formed by experience to cut through a fog of detail and reach the heart of a matter.

Smart people are more confident they’re right simply because they are smart – even though Jeff Bezos, clearly a smart guy, feels the smartest people are those who are willing (and even happy) to change their minds.

Because our CEO was motivated to land on a certain answer, he favored information that confirmed what he already believed and ignored data that did not. (Say hi to confirmation bias.)

He was too smart, and had too big an ego, to question his decisions.

How can you avoid that trap and consistently be the genuine, empathetic… and oddly enough, vulnerable and therefore egoless leader your employees deserve?

The process starts with taking a step back.

A simple technique is to pretend another person is in the situation you face. Stanford researchers found that simply encouraging yourself to view a situation from a detached perspective – pretending you need to walk someone through the reasoning behind a decision – improves outcomes, if only because it forces you to walk yourself not just through the decision, but the reasoning behind the decision.

Another is to take a second and question your instincts. In a 2005 Journal of Internal Medicine study, doctors given challenging clinical scenarios were only able to come up with a correct diagnosis two-thirds of the time.  But when doctors were asked to analyze their initial diagnosis and consider alternative possibilities, their diagnostic accuracy improved by as much as 40 percent.

In short, say to yourself, “I think this is right…but why do I think it is right?”

But by far the best approach is to be the last person to speak.

Imagine you have provided or delivered a sub-standard service or product. Don’t state the problem and say, “Here’s what we will do…” Say, “We have (this) problem. What should we do?”

Then be quiet. Let people think. Let people offer suggestions. Only speak to ask clarifying questions. Be the last to speak: That way, others can feel they have been heard. Others can feel they contributed. Others get the chance to come up with the best answer.

And, by showing that you trust your team and value their opinions – often more than you value your own – you get to create a vulnerability loop that will help build the culture your business needs.

The one that values outcomes.

Not authority.

And definitely not ego.

* Hat tip to Ryan Holiday’s excellent book, Ego is the Enemy.

About the author

Jeff Haden is a keynote speaker, contributing editor of Inc. magazine, LinkedIn Influencer, and author of The Motivation Myth.

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