"Like most smart, self-aware, and highly successful executives, Brandon underestimated how his own ego-driven dysfunctions created a team and organizational culture that virtually guaranteed broader dysfunction."
Unlike many other leadership books, Ego Free Leadership by Brandon Black and Shayne Hughes brings multiple perspectives to life. It focuses not only on the things done well, but on the mistakes made, and how important it is for the leader to let go of self-importance and embrace the concepts of servant leadership, vulnerability, and honesty. Brandon gives us a glimpse into the mind of a CEO as he navigates business issues and personal struggles, and through juxtaposition with the thoughts of his business coach, Shayne, you get an objective viewpoint and outsider view of reality. The strength of the book comes from showing both sides of the issues—from Brandon’s struggle to understand why his team is dysfunctional, to Shayne’s shining a light on the issues and bringing them to the front, forcing Brandon to face them straight on.
The Big Idea
Let go of the driver’s seat
"Unknowingly, his conscious intentions were being derailed by automatic reactions that prevented him from responding productively. We all do this. When faced with uncomfortable feedback, for example, each of us can shut down, discredit the source, or blame others—even though we know we should learn from the criticism. These reactive behaviors are a symptom of our ego, or egosystem."
Of all the lessons in the book, the biggest and likely most difficult for some business leaders to embrace is letting go of the notion that you are the smartest person in the room. The harsh reality is that until the leader is forced to identify his or her own role in the struggles of a company, through conscious and unconscious habits, nothing is going to change.
Too often leaders look for praise, want recognition as the leader or savior. This comes from unconscious habits and insecurities, a desire to feel important, to always be right, and the leader usually surrounds themselves with people who will not challenge them but reinforce this misguided need. It is not until someone forces them to hold a mirror to themselves that they can see their potential negative influence or impact on an organization based on their own ego and unconscious needs. Through open and honest reflection, they can identify and begin to work towards changing these habits.
Open and honest communication is vital
"Identifying how we contributed to past failures in life means the difference between developing wisdom and repeating the same patterns over and over again… Seeing that the last time he fell into this pattern it damaged his legacy and severed relationships for a decade provided Brandon with a dose of emotional clarity. It allowed him to be guided by what he truly wanted, not by what his egosystem feared. Although he was anxious, Brandon was irrevocably committed to creating a constructive conversation with the board."
Shayne and the team at Learning as Leaders developed a constructive communication model they call the VEDEC model, which is an acronym for vulnerable, empathetic, direct, exploratory, and caring. When used, this tactic allows for a far more productive conversation, especially when used in conjunction with each other.
Vulnerable – being open with our thoughts, fears and feelings.
Empathetic – getting a true understanding of the other’s fears allows us to understand their position.
Direct – need for clarity without judgement.
Exploratory – seek understanding and gather more information.
Caring – provide support for the other’s position.
Use of this model allowed Brandon to address concerns from board members without agitating them with accusatory tones and allowed him to diffuse a potentially disastrous meeting with vocal critics of the organization. In managing these skills, he was able to not only advance his own stature within the organization, but also further the development of his own leadership team leading by example. A formerly dysfunctional team turned itself around through the application of some key communication skills and protocol as Brandon and his team learned to apply the VEDEC model throughout the organization.
The power of personal bias and self-fulfilling prophesies
"Over the years scores of leaders have told me, ‘You should see the ego and politics in my organization!’ Perhaps because ego-driven behaviors—people avoiding conflict or overcontrolling; personality conflicts; groups assuming ill intent or acting with a tribal mentality—are so pervasive, many leaders accept them as normal."
The true power of effective leadership results from the ability to understand the role your personal biases play in both your success and your struggles. When the organization is struggling and the team is continuously fighting amongst itself at a development conference, Brandon is challenged by Shayne to look at the influence his attitude is having on his team. Only through the realization that his fears and insecurities have created silos and resultant issues in the various teams does Brandon really begin to unpack his history and understand how elements from his past have created biases that he has carried forward. As he tries to make himself feel better, and assert his leadership position, he in effect sabotages his team by making them feel incompetent. Shayne describes the four cultural dysfunctions organizations face and how each is triggered by self-worth fears.
- Conflict avoidance coupled with some potentially abrasive leadership.
- “Us vs them” dynamics which create silos.
- Leaders being defensive and guarded around development needs.
- Employees being reactive, tactical and overwhelmed with excess work.
The key is to identify these issues as soon as they appear to understand the drivers behind them, and then address them before they infect your organizational culture. Many of these are driven deeper by the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies. This is where we believe ill intent from the other side, our reaction proves our belief, and then we only provide the other side one way to act. By realizing this sooner than later, any potential conflict or disagreement can be resolved before they become embedded within divisions of an organization and manifest into silos, crippling your organization’s effectiveness.
Everything starts at the top, and as a leader this is especially true, but even more importantly the realization that everything begins with you is essential to truly effective leadership. Understanding that the impact of your own ego and the resulting decisions based on your internal biases becomes the foundation for your leadership means that all leaders need to be self-aware and focus not only on their strengths but also their weaknesses or development areas. What many have considered “soft skills” such as vulnerability, empathy, caring and humility are actually vital to the creation of transformative leaders that will drive our success as we grow both personally and professionally.