In his revolutionary book Good to Great, Jim Collins defined a term he coined the “Level 5 Executive”. Located at the very apex of Collins’ Leadership Hierarchy, the Level 5 Executive is defined as “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (Good to Great, page 20, emphasis added) Stop and consider that for a moment. In one of the most competitive arenas of modern history, overrun by corporate leaders with massive egos, those at the very top of the food chain are defined by their level of personal humility.
This is not a discussion on Good to Great. This is a discussion on Egonomics: what makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability) and the five year research project of David Marcum and Steven Smith. But we start with Collin’s explanation of a Level 5 Executive because it challenges us to re-evaluate our definitions of both “humility” and of “ego”. Let’s start with ego.
In a great analogy, Marcum and Smith make use of the human body as a backdrop to tell the story of ego. “To keep our body healthy,” the authors explain, “our immune system creates molecules called free radicals that fight viruses and bacteria. However, when environmental factors such as pollution and pesticides cause free radical production to become excessive, the molecules attack not only the viruses and bacteria but good cells and vital tissues as well, causing illness, premature aging, cancer and other diseases. Ego is a free radical.” (page 9) The analogy being, of course, that “ego”, in moderation, is actually a positive thing – giving us the ability to stave off insecurities and fears (“bacteria”) by maintaining a healthy level of confidence. It is not ego, but ego in excess (be that excess positive or negative) that leads to poor decisions and effectively holds an individual back from being great. But how do we know if our ego is slipping into “excess”? Marcum and Smith teach us that there are four early warning signs of an unbalanced ego; 1) Being comparative, 2) Being defensive, 3) Showcasing brilliance, and 4) Seeking Acceptance. (Egonomics, page 16)
The Balancing Act of Humility
“Ego’s power is pervasive and relentless but never neutral in how it affects our performance.”
Egonomics, page 10
The simple truth (as expressed on the cover of the book) is that ego can be our greatest asset or most expensive liability. It cannot, however, simply disappear. We need to be aware of our egos, and how they are swaying our judgment and actions at any given time. Humility, in its true definition, is the fine balancing point between too much ego (over confidence, unrealistic expectations) and too little (self doubt, self pity, lack of confidence). As we strive to spend more of our time on that balance point between too much ego and too little, Marcum and Smith suggest we keep these attitudes in mind:
1) We then Me (devotion to progress),
2) I’m brilliant, and I’m not (duality) and
3) One more thing (constructive discontent) (pg 101)
In other words:
1) Be committed to finding the ideal solution, not necessarily supplying it.
2) Understand there is value in being the student and the teacher.
3) Be content with what you have, while striving for all that you desire.
The all encompassing message is to strive towards separating our “self” from the current situation, whatever that situation might be. If we define ourselves through our titles and/or status, we lessen our ability to analyze the situation with a critical eye. “When people feel their ego is threatened, people make ‘less optimal decisions as judged from the standpoint of financial outcomes.” (page 5)
Distinguish Ideas from Identity
Here’s a fact: ideas need to be discussed. Especially in the workplace – viewpoints need to be examined and tested. Strategies need to be compared and debated. These conversations need to take place often, and vigorously for the simple reason that no one has the ability to, on their own, say for sure the absolute best course of action in all situations. It’s important to be aware and distinguish between someone’s ideas and identity. As individuals, when we confuse challenges to our ideas with challenges to our identity, the early warning signs appear as a way of “protecting” our sense of self. The irony, of course is that when any one of the four early indicators take root, we effectively shut down, unable to progress the conversation any further until our ego gets over itself and allows us to focus on the conversation around us, rather than the one raging in our heads.
Separating ideas from identity is relatively straight forward once you know what to look for. “Ideas” includes execution (ie. tactics and details of strategy), strategy (plans based on our view points) and viewpoint (what we believe to be right or wrong, based on the information we’ve been provided). “Identity”, by comparison, includes our values and character; what do we deem to be important, and who do we think we are. In vigorous debate, we should always be aware of what it is we’re discussing (execution, strategy, viewpoint, values or character). Both on the speaking and listening end of a comment, understanding how it was intended can have a massive impact on the outcome.
Epitomize Trait Curiosity
Embracing and developing our innate curiosity is one of the fastest ways to side step ego-related roadblocks. If we lead with questions rather than answers, curiosity can strip us of agenda and stop us from holding so tightly to our own ideas and beliefs that we aren’t able to consider others. “Curiosity drives us to accurately understand what’s happening, with the intention of finding an appropriate cure.” (p175) The joy in satisfying curiosity is in finding the ideal solution, regardless of who comes up with the idea. On page 183, Marcum and Smith outline four veins of questions that can help facilitate curiosity:
1. What do we mean? (clarity)
2. What are we seeing? (context)
3. What are we assuming? (assumptions)
4. What does that lead to? (consequence)
“According to research, 86 percent of gridlock moves to dialogue if we can get to “the dream” or purpose behind an idea. We can more vigorously debate and explore ideas when we understand the motivation behind them.”
Egonomics, page 192
Curiosity allows us to uncover the real motivation behind an idea or decision. By discovering the motivation, and therefore the desired outcome, we are able to more easily see alternative possibilities. Lead with questions, rather than answers and you’ll be amazed at how much you accomplish, and the people you’ll accomplish it with.
Egonomics is a truly fascinating book. It’s brilliantly written and beautifully enlightening. In 228 pages, David Marcum and Steven Smith have masterfully intertwined business guidance, personal development, philosophy and a quick tutorial on some of the finer details of the English language. This book moves at a great pace, and educates on every page. I can honestly say that this book has had more impact on me than most I’ve read in my life, and certainly all that I’ve read this year. Which is not to say that it would have the same impact on you. That’s the curious thing about books like these; some are great, some are great kindling and some are great but we just don’t know it yet. I firmly believe that books, like people, have a proper time and place in our lives.