[June 10, 2016] In the study of leadership and in an attempt to find the keys to success many look to elements of the best leaders; characteristics, behaviors, backgrounds, attitudes, etc. Yet, leadership is not only a complex concept but we all have our own ideas about what it is. One idea that has been bounced around is the concept of the ego as it relates to leadership and its impact on others; both positive and negative.
If anyone was asked to name leaders from the past century that epitomized the notion of a big ego, I’m sure that there would be a long list of names. Yet one name stands out among them all … Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Few would disagree with this judgment of a particularly strong ego from a World War II leader but others would include the names Churchill, Stalin, Patton, Hitler, and Montgomery and they would be spot on.
The common understanding of “ego” is that it is a personality trait that involves a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. In fact this comes straight from the dictionary but sadly covers over the more intricacies and complexities of the concept. No … this blog entry is not about to become a treatise on the Freudian concepts of ego, id, superego, and so forth. What is important however is that we all understand that ego can be both a positive and negative influence on anyone.
But it is the leader that interests us here. By early 1940, Hitler’s troops were racing westward across Europe and were poised to capture Paris, France by June of that year. Mussolini – intelligent, politically shrewd, strategic acumen – possessed an ego of enormous size and it had helped propel him to the height of Italy in only a few short years.1 And yet it also drove him to ally with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in order to get in on the spoils of war.
By his own admission, Mussolini had a self-confessed “thirst for military glory.” His ego was inflated to such an extent that it dominated any good qualities he might have had. For example, his ability to lead was exceptional but he was so convinced that he could never be wrong and that, of course, is often the downfall of many leaders. This is why there is such a resurgence in the “authentic leadership.”
“The ego is a fascinating monster.” – Alanis Morissette, alternative rock singer-songwriter
The lesson for leaders is that one’s ego can be both a great asset and a tremendous disadvantage. Since the beginning of humankind, fire has been both beneficial and destructive; it depends on how it’s handled, so can a leader’s ego do both. The trick is not to let it burn you.
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