In order to survive, my own ego came into play, and work came to feel more like a competition, which I spent my days trying to win. I did everything I could to always appear cool, calm and competent, never asking for help or giving him any suggestion that I mightn’t understand something. Even when that something was completely new to me. I worked around him as much as possible, because direct dealings often resulted in a bruised ego. Mine, not his. But the worst aspect, I think, was watching how he undermined my colleagues, particularly the junior staff, noticing how he damaged them, left them questioning their own sense of worth.
Lao Tzu’s definition of a ‘wicked leader’ sums up this manager perfectly. He was truly disliked by his people. He created a culture of fear where there was no place for personal vulnerability or honesty. Needless to say, I didn't last long at that job, though when I made the decision to leave after only six months in the position, it felt to me like a personal failure. He’d won and I’d lost. At the same time, though, I realised that it was the organisation that had lost the most.
An extreme example of poor leadership, perhaps, but one that illustrates the nature of ego and how it can drive our behaviour through fear, desire and ambition. An organisational culture that requires its people to always appear strong, objective and goal-focused will operate with an undercurrent of fear. Egos flourish in these environments because they’re all about having to look good in the eyes of others. The need to be seen as successful, important, competent. Competition will flourish also, because winning looks good, it strokes our ego, and it helps us feel good. But it’s important to remember that this emphasis on outward appearances masks the true fears beneath. Fear of failure. Fear of not looking the part. Fear of not belonging.
The problem is that when our behaviour is driven by what others think of us, or what we look like, or what we manage to achieve, we will look outwards, not inwards, when making decisions. We ignore, and risk losing touch with those deeper parts of ourselves where we're able to access our inner truth, our feelings and intuition, our values and beliefs.
When we're able to step back from our ego and see it as a separate part of ourselves, we’re better able to recognise and control our ego-driven fears. As I said in my last blog entry Head versus Heart, once we’re freed from the controlling influence of the ego, we find we have the courage to show up in the world with all of ourselves, with our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures. With fear out of the way, trust is able to flourish, and we’re more likely to connect with a deeper sense of purpose in life and the courage to stand up and strive for what we believe in.