Sometimes we run into people in positions of power – including ourselves – who just seem incapable of getting their ego out of the way. Regardless of how “successful” they appear on the outside – and how many rewards they receive for it – it’s a drudge to work for them and the company suffers the inefficiency of a demotivated workforce.
Most organizations, especially the large ones that I’ve worked for, tend to treat these ego-leaders as a cost of doing business. What they don’t seem to realize is that by tolerating a toxic boss, they are failing to realize productivity and innovation while sending the message to the entire employee base that, “we know this person abuses their position, but we care more about them and their results than we care about you and all the productivity we could get out of you if we and the ego-boss respected you.”
I know that others in the organization – especially the organizational development people who see it all but are often powerless to actually fire the bad apples – work hard to try to help the ego-boss see the error of their ways.
When you’re under an egomaniac’s thumb, however, it can seem a hopeless place to be.
Although I don’t think it happens often enough, it does happen that the ego-boss sees the errors of their ways and transforms themselves and their perspective to become the servant leader. I loved the way this former Naval Commander put it when he had his ah-ha! and shifted from command-and-control style to servant leadership, deploying what he called the Copernican Theory of Leadership he picked up from some Harvard OD types:
This theory held that the workforce was the sun and I was the earth rotating around them. This theory postulated that an organization was only as good as what the workforce produced. It also contended that without their heat and energy I as manager would die, and that if I treated the workforce as if they were very important, their performance would improve significantly. - Ben Simonton, Leadership Coach and Advisor
Deploying the Copernican Theory of Leadership in both the Navy and subsequent management roles, Ben realized a 400% increase in productivity from his people as he learned the intricacies of servant-leadership, including openness, listening and enabling self-motivation.
Similarly, Dave Balter, CEO and Founder of BzzAgent wrote a stunningly transparent article for Inc. Magazine about his own switch in approach and how he traded ego for humility and saved his company from ruin.
I’ve seen this in other enlightened leaders as well and this is what I note are the common elements in the story for these folks.
While we can only lead horses to water, I think it’s clear that no matter what our relationship to leadership and power, we all owe it to ourselves, our companies, and our society to speak truth to power.
But we need to do more than that. We need to model, reward, and reinforce the ultimate truth that humility, transparency, and a relentless drive to learn, as well as a desire to improve in order to become better people, are internal powers that great leaders call on to wield whatever external – positional – power the world grants them for a time. For ultimately, they all retire, are fired, or simply die off, and little is remembered of their positional power but much is remembered of their internal power – because that’s what mattered most.
In your relationship to leadership, what do you do to model these truths? When and how do you speak truth to power? And, most importantly, what are YOU doing to continue to grow your own internal power that moves your ego aside?