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Ego is not the Enemy…But it shouldn’t be driving the car.



By Daniel Kingsley

Girl Driving The Car

I heard a business leader who I respect say on LinkedIn last week, “Ego is the Enemy at our company”.  He was quoting the successful book by Ryan Holiday of the same name.  And I both agreed with him and disagreed with him.  I’d like to tell you why.

I agree that following our egos usually cause us to make bad decisions as leaders (and as human beings in general).  But I don’t like the use of the phrase as it’s expressed, using the language of war.  Ego is certainly the enemy of good decision making, and of kind and inclusive behaviour, but that doesn’t make it “bad” in itself. 

Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy says, there are “no bad partsof our psyche.  They all serve a potentially useful function.  And I respectfully agree.   The important thing is to recognise the functions of all the parts that make us up, and to make sure that the right ones are in charge at the right times. 

This is a philosophy or practice of befriending ourselves.  Meeting all the aspects of who we are, including and understanding them, so that they can work together in harmony for our own wellbeing, and for that of everyone we interact with.

When we label a part of who we are as an “enemy”, we put ourselves at war with ourselves, and that’s stressful and potentially counter-productive.  The ego is a necessary part of the make-up of our psychology, and we couldn’t get rid of it even if we wanted to.  So the art of being a really effective leader is to recognise the role our ego plays, understand its motivations, strengths and weaknesses and to harness it as skilfully as we can.  (Which is exactly what good leaders do with their team members).


What is the Ego?

There’s actually a fair amount of disagreement about this!  Sigmund Freud (who coined the term) describes it as the part of our personality that mediates the demands of the id (our desires), the superego (aka the Inner Critic), and reality.  According to Freud, the ego’s main job is to help us navigate reality and society in the midst of our desires, so we don’t do too many things that would get us into trouble.

Some psychotherapists don’t speak about the ego at all, preferring to simply talk about “parts” within the psyche that have different functions.  In the Internal Family Systems model, these parts are mostly labelled as exiles (parts experiencing or holding pain, shame, fear or trauma) and protectors (whose primary job is to control or regulate the exiles).

When people in the street talk about ego, they are talking about an over-inflated sense of self.  Someone who is egotistical thinks about themselves first, and everyone else as secondary to that.  They project (at least externally) a belief that they are wonderful, beautiful and highly competent.  A good example of someone who many people would agree has a rather large ego would be Donald Trump.

When a leadership coach suggests that the ego is the enemy (of good leadership), they are similarly referring to the part(s) of our psychology that puts us and our needs first, needs to be right all the time, and relegates everyone else (and their needs) to an also-ran.

For the purposes of this article, that’s the definition that I’d like to work with.

Even those of us who are not egomaniacs know that there is a part of us that is desperate for approval.  A part that feels very happy when people say nice things about us, and gets pretty upset when people say things that are less than complimentary.  A part of us that wants to avoid uncomfortable feelings at all costs, and will do its best to control our reality and those around us so that we don’t have to.  I certainly have a part (or parts) like that, and I’m almost certain that you do too.

A good guide to when your ego is talking, is when you hear the name “I” in your head.  E.g. “I think that’s a good idea” or “I think he’s an idiot”.  (Though of course sometimes this part of us drops the name “I think bit” and simply says “He’s an idiot”).


The Ego shouldn’t be driving the car

The important thing to recognise about the ego (or the collection of egoic parts), is that it functions in an essentially child-like way.  It wants what it wants, it has a very thin skin, and it will bully, control or manipulate those around it in order to get its needs for pleasure, lack of pain and validation met.  If you have a 5 or 6 year old in your life, you will recognise that they are mostly id (desires) and ego (trying to control reality in order to get those desires met).  For 5 year olds, that mainly means screaming to get what they want, telling people what they think they need to hear, or sulking when they don’t get their own way.  This is normal and completely appropriate for 5 year olds.

Now we are no longer 5 years old, our ego is much more developed.  It knows the rules of society, and it knows that screaming and shouting usually isn’t the best way to get our needs met.  But its attitude is pretty-much the same, it’s just better camouflaged and has nicer manners (mostly).

It is fairly clear that this part of us doesn’t make a very good leader!  It doesn’t play nicely with others (because it doesn’t care about them beyond what they can do for us), and it tends to favour short-term decision making rather than looking at the big picture or the long term.  It only cares about what is “good for me” rather than what is best for us.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the ego, just in the way that there is nothing wrong with a 5 year old child.  But just like a 5 year old child, it shouldn’t be in charge.  It shouldn’t be driving the car.

Its place is in one of the passenger seats, along with our inner critic, and the other vulnerable child-like parts of who we are.


So…who should be driving?

Many people think that their ego and their inner critic (super-ego) is who they are.  When their critic is telling them “you’re an idiot” they say “I’m being very hard on myself”.  When their ego is telling them “I know I’m the best” or “So and so is an idiot” they think it’s their “self” talking.

My experience is neither of these parts represents our true selves.

Who we truly are includes the vulnerable parts of us, the joyful parts of us, the angry parts of us, the egoic and the self-critical parts of us. 

The psychotherapist Richard Schwartz names the “Self” as the aspect of us that is not a part.  It can be viewed as containing all the other parts, and yet outside and beyond them. 

My experience (for me and those I’ve worked with) is that we all do have such an aspect.   It is sometimes called our “higher self”, and it’s the part of us that remains when we subtract our ego, our inner critic and our vulnerabilities.  It is kind, wise, compassionate, connected and usually knows just what to do, not just for our sake but the sake of the whole.  It can be viewed as a kind “inner-adult” part of who we are.

Fairly obviously, it is a great place to lead from, to speak from and from which to relate to everyone we meet.

So the good news is that we’ve all got this Self aspect, whether we know it or not.  The bad news is that the other voices in our heads usually speak louder than this voice, frequently making it difficult to hear. 

Often, the only way to find this voice, is to recognise all the other voices that are speaking and compassionately put them to one side.  (I sometimes like to imagine inviting them to sit in the back of the car and allowing the Self to drive).  I give an example of doing this with our fearful parts in this articleA similar approach can be applied to any of the other parts of us.


And yet we need the Ego

It’s impossible to eliminate the ego, and even if it were possible, it would be a bad idea!  We remain human beings with personalities and preferences.  We have opinions.  And we exist in a world of other human beings, most of whom are operating from an opinion-driven ego place.  In order to relate with them, we need to be able to play the ego game – where we can discuss opinions, display our personality traits and seek out others who we enjoy socialising with.

When we are coming from Self, we can see the ego, and still play the “ego game” without taking it seriously.  This is the literal meaning of not taking “ourselves” too seriously.  The ego is still in operation, but is realised not to be our true Self.


And we certainly need the mind

In the model that I’m offering, ego can be viewed as a department of mind.  It’s the fearful, mistrustful, usually vain part  that makes everything all about “me”.

But that leaves a whole lot of our minds that isn’t that.  Our minds are wonderful tools for discernment and logical reasoning.  You can’t plan a day out without using your mind.  Nor can you plan a presentation that you’re giving, or a new direction for your team or organisation.

From a place deeply rooted in the Self, the mind becomes a wonderful tool for navigating the world, instead of the centre of our identity.

One of my teachers speaks about letting the heart set the general direction, and letting the mind plan the logistics.  I love this model.

Our heart is the aspect of our Selves that knows what we truly want and what truly matters to us.  We all know this place.  If someone isn’t behind a project, we often say “their heart wasn’t in it”.  If someone is speaking of what matters to them, we’ll say “they spoke from the heart”.  I find that if I can tune into my heart, it is an incredibly reliable guide to what I need to be doing in any given situation.  But it’s lousy at detail.

On the other hand the mind is great at detail.  At planning, logic, order and rigorous testing. It’s just not so trustworthy at direction – it’s often in “two-minds” about which way to go.  In my experience, no-one is in two hearts!  The heart knows what it wants and it’s usually very clear about it. So these two aspects of who we are are very complimentary if co-ordinated in an optimal way from the Self.  Together, the heart and the mind make a great team.


Putting it all together

So, is this where I live from every day?  Only in my dreams!  Partly due to habit, and partly due to old emotions going on in my body that I don’t want to feel, I still spend plenty of time in my life letting the ego drive, and accordingly being trapped in my head.  And yet…

And yet, when I notice who’s driving and remember, often another possibility arises.  I can say (with warmth) “Oh! It’s you!”, when I recognise that I’ve let my egoic child loose  at the steering wheel.  I can calmly place him in the back seat and relax back into a larger, wider, kinder sense of myself.  And it’s a huge relief.

The sense that the world is a problem that needs to be solved or a game to be won fades away, and is usually replaced by an underlying sense of contentment, even if difficult things are happening.  I start to see the big picture and gain a sense perspective.  I regain my sense of humour.  Life becomes enjoyable, satisfying and connected.

And I know it’s a huge relief for those around me as well.  I know that coming from this place I’m a better partner, friend, and leader.  Access to this way of being is what I wish for all of us.


If you’d like to explore any of these issues with me in One to One coaching, please do contact us.  We also touch on many of these issues in our Foundation Public Speaking Courses in London.

Daniel Kingsley
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