Ego Management

A recent article in The New Yorker profiled curiosity worthy of our times: “personality trainer” to top executives who were perceived to have problem getting along with others. While I remain unconvinced of the efficacy of personality makeovers, I did find myself surprised to agree with comment made by the trainer. “In business, as in Buddhism,” he said, “the self is an obstacle.”
In fact, I would go even further and say that the higher up the executive ladder you go, the greater the odds that your ego will be what stalls your career. Ego is double-edged sword. It is undoubtedly the wellspring of ambition, the gasoline that drives us to work harder, think more creatively, and strive for continuous improvement. Businesses couldn’t run without it; humanity probably owes most of its development since our cave-dwelling days to it.

Ego: The over-achiever’s addiction
Ego also is one of our greatest sources of pleasure: It must rank up there with sugar and sex as an all-around mood elevator. But that high comes at price, all too often distorting judgement and, over time, kicking off cycle of ups and downs that only gets steeper. That’s why it’s difficult to manage ego, and so important to try.
As Lew Wasserman, the great agent and so-called “Last Mogul,” once told me: “The only way service businesses like ours can work is if you park your ego at the door every morning.”
Lew’s theory of success was simple: “Hire people smarter than you, and let them go. Don’t sell yourself – sell the company.”
Simple, but hard to practise. It’s fine line to walk, after all, in world where status and name recognition are inescapably tied to access, effectiveness, and power. When magazine-cover level CEO makes deal or presides over positive earnings release, who’s to say what did the trick – hard work and perseverance by his team or his personal charisma and infallible intuition? We know what that imp the ego is whispering in his ear.

CEO, assess thyself
This problem of realistically assessing yourself is one of the big shortcomings of American executives. I say American because in many other cultures self-criticism is viewed as part of the executive skill set. In America, it is all too often viewed as reflecting lack of self-confidence or even weakness; in addition, one who engages in self-criticism may find his openness and honesty used against him in certain corporate environments.
For example, let’s take one trait much prized in business: effectiveness. certain briskness is valuable in the workplace, an aversion to time-wasting rituals and social protocols. But it’s all matter of degree. There are too many leaders and managers who use briskness as an excuse for being rude, impatient, or disagreeable. Because they can’t assess themselves, they are unaware of the effect of this behaviour on other people.
As I said, it’s matter of degree. I’m obsessive about time. I’m punctual, on the button. I telephone when I say I will, and I expect others to do the same. There’s not lot of bad to it from any point you care to view it, but if I were to go ballistic at somebody for being two minutes late that would be sign that my punctiliousness had become liability – sign, I might add, that I hope I would recognise.
A lot of the rough edges in our personalities come from the baggage of childhood and young adulthood, which is why we often resist transformation. Still, transformation is the work of grown-ups, life being no less than series of daily changes.
My advice to those who need help losing the self is not to hire personality trainer, but to do something easier, more rewarding – and that is to play more golf. I make only one stipulation: Play it in state of awareness.
Golf is game that requires and rewards self-awareness and self-criticism. When player lies to himself about his abilities to carry water hazard, golf very quickly sends him message and two-stroke penalty. Similarly, I have often felt that you can gauge person’s personality by how he deals with three-foot putt in friendly round.
Some golfers work like hell, studying the lie from every angle, squatting, practice-stroking. Others who may be unsure of their game or uncomfortable at the attention may step up and slap at the ball, so that it has at best random chance of going in. Then there are those whose approach is in-between – they don’t treat it as life-threatening matter, but also aren’t turned off by the idea of making an effort (and, perhaps, risking exposing their deficient skills).
In your business life, you want to be like the third putter. And you want to be able to tell the difference between the whispering imp of the ego and the voice of common sense. To reach such state of ego management, I can only counsel the wisdom of Socrates: Know thyself. But I can attest to the methodology of golf as way to help you reach that losing-the-self state. If you do it right, I’ll stake the results against any consultation. And it’s got to be lot more fun, too. M

Mark McCormack is the founder of International Management Group.

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