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Thursday, April 12, 2020

Of Expansive Egos and Hamburger Managers

Can organizations afford what corporate egos are costing them?

"To have without possessing,
do without claiming,
lead without controlling;
this is mysterious power."

                 Tao Te Ching, Lau Tzu (tr. Ursula K. Le Guin)
Ego and egotism are endemic to Hamburger Management, but fatal to good leadership. Egotism causes over-optimism, over-confidence, and arrogance. Big egos inflate people into domineering monsters focused on petty personal victories, who wreck relationships and rush to take on too much, in the erroneous belief that they’re the only people sufficiently capable. Then such people demand too much from their teams to sustain their crazy, inflated Superman or Wonder Woman images. Giving up that ego would cut everyone’s stress—and transform their leadership too.
Buddhists have long claimed a false belief in the ego is a principle cause of human suffering. I’m inclined to agree with this. In the Buddhist view, there is no ego. It’s a mental concept without true substance, generated by incorrect thinking and a poor grasp of reality. Because it isn’t something that can exist on its own, it must be constantly fed with the three elements in the quotation at the head of this posting: possession, claims of personal “ownership” of events and outcomes, and delusions of control. Exactly the same behavior characterizes most Hamburger Managers.

What happens when a leader can’t have without possessing? Everything becomes his. It’s his team, his authority, his areas of responsibility and command, his decisions alone. No one must be allowed to share his power—or his rewards—so no one can share the burdens either. Any questioning of his decisions becomes a personal attack and proof of disloyalty. To take anything of his away threatens his very existence.

This is a quick route to paranoia and dictatorship. The leader who can’t let go of his ego-driven urge to possess everything can’t accept colleagues, only subordinates. He can’t allow others to do whatever they can do as well—or better—than him, in case that makes him look insufficient. No one can help him, no one can truly support him, because he cannot share anything. In his crazed urge to possess it all, he sets himself up to lose it all instead.

Similarly, the leader who claims every success, every gain, every useful action as hers frustrates all those around her. She cannot do without claiming. It’s all hers—except the failures, of course. She won the order (though she never met the customer); she had that great new idea (after someone else explained it to her); she’s the one solely responsible for exceeding the budget and cutting costs (though her team created the plan, implemented it, and bore the burdens of overwork and long hours).

In reality, all that she’s responsible for (but never claims) is alienating her people, irritating her colleagues, and becoming so filled with inflated ideas of her own importance that she’s a universal pain in the butt. Why is there any need to claim anything? If it’s done—and done well—what more is required? If someone else did it, give them the praise they’re due. Only peoples’ needy, insecure egos demand constant reassurance it’s all down to them.

Good leaders don’t need to exercise control as they lead. People follow them because they want to; because they like, respect, admire, emulate, and even love the leader. There’s no call for rules, enforcement, punishment, and informers: all the paraphernalia of the typical command-and-control, macho culture of many organizations. They have to operate like police states because the leaders’ egos crave the false reassurance that they’re in control. The more any leader resorts to commands and enforcement, the less he or she leads. The ego is calling all the shots.

I’ve drawn these pictures in harsh outlines, but we’ve all suffered under leaders who show some—sometimes most—of these destructive behaviors, at least in less extreme forms. Egotism is a pervasive curse. The claim that all power corrupts is a direct consequence of the malignant ability of an inflated ego to turn a previously pleasant, competent manager into a leadership monster.

True leadership sometimes seems to be a mysterious power—but only because the leader doesn’t appear to do anything except be herself. It looks effortless, yet it’s powerful beyond expectation. She gives away authority, power, position, and recognition as if she has no interest in such possessions—which is true. She also hands out rewards, praise, respect, and support to all who merit them; then receives more in return than she gave away. She has everything, yet claims nothing for herself. She gets everything done, yet points to others as the ones who did it. Ask them and they’ll tell you she was the one responsible. They did it for her, under her oversight, to meet her specifications. She never appears to control anything. There’s no need. Everyone rushes to what what she asks. Better still, they strain to anticipate her wishes before she ever articulates them. They love working for her and they love her. Why? Because she makes them feel wanted, needed, and valued.

Let go of your ego. It’s a burden that you don’t need. Besides, it doesn’t really exist—unless you act as if it does. To achieve the power that enables, not corrupts, stop possessing, claiming, and controlling . . . and try caring and leading instead.



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