A few years ago, my yoga instructor told me that he broke his back. Doing Yoga. I was pretty surprised at the time. In Yoga, your ego is called Asmita, and in yoga philosophy, the word represents an affliction. Ego prevents you from listening, hearing. Now he only leads half the class.
In every area of life imaginable, ego can be both constructive, and deeply destructive. Nowhere is its impact greater than in business. Why? Because good business relies deeply upon human interaction.
Ego can be a force of good
Having an ego in business is not bad. Ego is required to create anything great. Getting started, creating a vision, even collaboration; all rely on its strength. Without it, companies would never have started; ideas never conceived. Ego is needed, to make anything great, work. The trouble is, left unchecked, its force is overbearing. Overpowering. Even dangerous. Ego’s past success creates the arrogance that funds its own future failure.
Remember the former CEO of Bear Sterns, Jimmy Cayne? He famously organised his own private lift to take him from his car in the basement, up to his office on the 31st floor. He wasn’t alone; Fuld and O’Neal, CEOs at Lehman and Merrills, each had one too. Quite the club. Fuld’s had an added feature, it was programmed not to stop, so he didn’t have to pass a single member of staff on the way up. If you would like a modern-day depiction of an Ivory Tower, that’s it. Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers were among the first firms to be absorbed in the financial crisis. Their three CEOs, once successful, grew so powerful, and so dangerously complacent, that their actions brought down three of the most powerful investment banks in the World, and almost collapsed the entire global financial system. Feedback, lifeblood of survival, was cut. Ego took the floor.
Feedback and fear
Can you imagine trying to catch eyes with these guys? Telling them you think they have got it wrong? How do you think that would have been received?
Think of Bill Gross, the CIO of Pimco, who stepped down recently. Mad as a hatter some say. Bill is known for his tremendous ego. The Bond King. People who questioned him simply didn’t make it. But he wasn’t just the CIO, he was the Founder. He built the global powerhouse of $2 trillion.
But does that make him un-questionable?
Have you ever met one person who gets it right all of the time? A real high flyer who has never put a foot wrong? No? Me neither. That’s because nobody ever has. Gross was asked to leave after founding a firm managing $2 trillon. He has gone to Janus, a company whose entire assets under management do not equal the $220 billion he ran as manager of the PIMCO Total Return Fund alone. His former salary was more than 10 times the size of the fund he now manages. Gross shows us that we are all answerable for our actions. We can all be asked to leave.
Understanding fuels growth
Why is accepting mistakes still perceived as a sign of weakness over strength? If we are so great, then why do we care so much about being ‘wrong’? We need more space for reasonable error in business. The room to grow. The space which understanding creates, is much more valuable than the errors which fear eliminates. Do you really think that your colleagues don’t know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Really? I hate to tell you but they almost always do. But guess what? They have them too! Your mistakes don’t make you wrong. Not adapting to them does.
Think of how you feel when someone criticises you, even positively? You stop a second, stand still. Your eyes enlarge. Mind, racing. Throat, dry.
You’re in fight or flight
The thing you must remember, is that your nervous system cannot differentiate between a physical threat to your body and an emotional one to your ego. BANG. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol in your blood, as if you were under a physical attack. But you’re not. You’re just at work.
In our modern world, we are available anywhere. We are safer, richer, and better fed, than we ever have been. But we still feel under attack, in more places, at more times, than ever before. The major threat to our lives is no longer outside of us. It is inside.
Control your ego. Don’t let your ego control you. Don’t let it break the bank.