Our fundamental sense of identity drives us to attempt to control the world around us – with harmful results. Can leaders escape ego’s effects and adopt a conscious approach?

As organizations strive to navigate the headwinds brought about by rising geopolitical instability, economic turbulence and climatic change, we could be forgiven for thinking that the cause of global dysfunction is something much bigger than ourselves. But its origin and its solution – which will require every organization to radically adapt, in your lifetime – is far closer to home. It starts with you – and your ego.

The world we create as leaders is the manifestation of who we think we are. At the core of our sense of self is ego. The common misconception is that ego imbues self-confidence and resilience and is, therefore, necessary to be effective as a leader. However, at a more fundamental level, ego is simply a system of beliefs: a way of thinking through which we identify with the world around us.

Ego is constructed around eight core beliefs – the tenets of ego – which afford our sense of free will and authorship. It is the belief that when we act, when we think, when we choose, when we breathe and when we die, that all of this happens to us as an individual, separate self.

The eight tenets of ego are so immutably ingrained in our worldview that we rarely consider their implications for us as individuals, or for the world at large – including the possibility that they warrant our curiosity and questions. Yet, in truth, they are the cause of all suffering in the world today. They are no less important than that. How so? No one acts self-consciously through ego all the time, but when we do, it is because we seek control as a means for personal fulfillment. The ego, as our perceived locus of identity, asserts control at any cost, because the perception of control provides evidence for its own existence. And through this search arises suffering.

The need to control our external environment creates dysfunction and inequity within relationships, both on an individual and collective basis. In an organizational context, there emerges a complex interplay of egoic power dynamics that manifest specific axes of organizational dysfunction – dualistic tensions that tend the organization’s operations towards order or chaos. There are eight axes in total, reflecting both the primary basis by which value is created in any formal system, and correlating with the eight tenets of ego.
For example, egoic dysfunction arises through the duality of compliance power (power to enforce rules and standards) and disruptive power (power to change the system) – an axis that originates through a belief in causality. Another tension may arise between predictive power (the power to anticipate wanted information) and visionary power (power to see a future to inspire others). This axis is sustained through our conception of transience, of past and future.

When we identify with the system itself, this systemization of ego establishes a form of ‘meta-ego’. It is a kind of Evil Genius Organization, or EGO – the coordinated, collective expressions of ego that are polarizing our world today.

The ego flip: eight conscious imperatives

To counter these egoic forces requires a shift to more conscious forms of leadership. In my book, Ego Flip, I propose a leadership manifesto as a universal framework for leaders to lead beyond the ego, to address the tenets of ego and the illusion of control. This manifesto takes the form of eight conscious imperatives.

1. Give open access to information

Organizations invest time and money to control the flow of information to people and help them access the information they need. But every time we limit access to information, we risk increasing mistrust and inequity, as access is afforded according to privilege (such as managerial rank). If we ask employees to care about the organization, it means we’re asking them to own it – so we should treat employees with the same level of trust as if they were themselves the owner. To achieve this, we need to focus not on sharing information, but on sharing meaning. We need to derestrict and encourage learning in all its forms. At the same time, we need to limit what we know. To be effective, leaders need to know less – to be ruthless in determining what will enable them to take meaningful action, and what will hold them back (the ‘information security blanket’).

2. Crowdsource your people

Organizational success is increasingly dependent on the ability of talent to coalesce around their greatest challenges. Leaders need to treat talent not as controllable individuals, but as a self-sovereign connected movement. This starts by helping people create the work. Organizations that set the work simultaneously seek to set the purpose, yet the value and purpose of work is known not only through its execution, but through its inception and creation. Organizations need to shift their role: away from that of an employer that sets the purpose, to a role based on fostering a global marketplace of entrepreneurs and independent collaborators.

3. Become a ʻFragileʼ organization

Organizations are on a journey to increase value to their customers. Agile organizations that organize around value streams (in effect, mini-organizations aligned around the delivery of a specific measure of customer value) are building ever-greater competitive advantage as a result. Fully Realized Agile is a concept that takes the core tenets of agile one step further, through three principles that pertain to the fundamental purpose of the organization. First, the organization exists to serve its customer: its success is measured by the value the customer receives from the organization, relative to that which they could receive elsewhere. Second, if the value that is delivered is not improving and/or is less than an acceptable threshold, then the organization is no longer acting in the best interests of that customer and should withdraw its services. Third, the acceptable threshold of customer value should be far higher than most organizations (and most customers) set today.

4. Find your phase transition

Synchronization is observed throughout the natural world, from the very large (the flocking behavior of 100,000 starlings), to the very small (your heart keeps beating due to the synchronous electrical rhythm of 10,000 pacemaker cells in the sinoatrial node). In animals, we describe this behavior as swarming – a mass synchronization of movement – and the rules that govern swarms in nature can teach us how organizations can bring about a ‘phase transition’ or radical change.

It’s based on the principle of coupling, in which – in organizational terms – the action of an individual to counteract the prevailing egoic system is passed on through a single trusted individual, in the form of a challenge to the system. Repeated coupling creates a ripple effect, with the collective act of their shared, mutinous endeavor building to become encapsulated as a new movement that can change the system from within. In swarms, this process of encapsulation – of communication between individuals – requires an intimate one-to-one relationship if the movement is to survive. Our work networks are often fluid, transactable, consumable, their value proportionate to our ability to get the job done. Our relationships have become points on a map by which we navigate our careers, and while our networks have grown more diverse, they have simultaneously lost their depth and affinity. Instead, leaders should consider the value of forming more intimate, deeper personal connections to unlock an organization’s capacity for change, where change requires not just collective action, but a common purpose.

5. Rethink thinking

Traditional, systematic, rule-based thinking will not solve the more complex problems of the future – or even today’s. Organizations that dare to think differently will always be more successful. There are many ways to think differently, to encourage a change in perspective. Chess grandmasters think about the end-game, using retrograde analysis to think backwards to close the game. We can use deep thinking to take any statement that we think is true and explore what it is that has fixed our perspective. We can even think about the unthinkable – the ‘unknown unknowns’. The only thing certain about surprise is its certainty, and yet we could ask: “What/where/who would I need to be for an event to happen to me?”

6. Abandon rules to grow

The unwritten rule of any enterprise seeking a degree of self-organization is that individual ownership creates collective success. Yet rules cut across this freedom and limit creativity, curiosity and agility. Three simple rules can help organizations and leaders minimize compliance:

  1. Replace policies with judgment
  2. Track performance, not compliance
  3. Limit rules to those that: (a) avoid certain death and disaster; (b) keep you in the game (like the lines drawn on a pitch that keep the game in play); and (c) lock-in the destination (but not the journey).

7. Reward performance with Fast feedback

If the aim of performance management is to improve employee performance, the process is broken. The solution? Replace the corrective control of performance management with a system of Fast feedback that is focused on improving performance, not performance ratings.

Frank – make it candid Frank feedback is always goal-orientated and contextual, so that its scope is unambiguous and limited to that which is in the recipient’s purview. Any watering down of feedback will hinder its efficacy.

Affective – make it personal Feedback is always personal: not because we’re asking the recipient to listen, but because we’re asking them to care. To be effective, feedback needs to be both about the whole person and in-person, to build trust.

Spontaneous – make it about this moment Feedback should always be provided at the point of need, because it needs to be actionable now.

Transparent – make it open to everyone Sharing feedback on an individual openly with others encourages the practice of feedback and normalizes its use for continuous improvement.

8. Make people your purpose

When organizations act in the service of their people, their people become not just a part of the organization, but that through which the organization owes its purpose. Organizations that make people their purpose cease trying to manage individual performance and instead recognize two powerful ideas. Firstly, all individuals seek high performance. High performance arises through the open, undiluted expression of who we are. It cannot be ‘managed into being’; it occurs through being. Secondly, OK performance is not OK. Individuals who are able to express how they feel through the work they do will achieve the highest performance. OK performance is not OK, because this means that individuals are not able to express themselves fully and freely.

The eight conscious imperatives point to the changing role of leaders as disruptors and provocateurs. Only through a conscious approach to leadership will we transition from today’s ‘ego-systems’ to the sustainable ecosystems of the future.