The best leaders keep their egos under control

By Tom Howard

A version of this post was first published in The Australian on July 31 2018

Elon Musk’s recent behaviour — featuring attacks on various targets including individual critics, the media, and most recently and bizarrely, heroic rescuers — makes for an interesting case study in how the ego can help us or hinder us in our entrepreneurial journey.

No doubt, Elon Musk is a brilliantly talented engineer and entrepreneur.

From learning to program at 9 and selling the code for his first video game at age 12, he’s had an unbroken run of success, and is now running two of the most ambitious and potentially transformative companies we’ve ever seen, in Tesla and SpaceX.

You don’t achieve such feats without a big ego.

To keep building companies with ever-increasing complexity and impact, against powerful resistance from established players, competitors and critics, takes self-belief and conviction that very few possess.

No doubt Musk has taken pleasure from the kudos he’s received along the way, particularly in recent years as he’s become seen by many as someone who can help save the earth from environmental collapse, and help humanity become a multi-planetary species.

All this speaks of an ego that was formidable to begin with, and that has grown even more powerful as the success and adulation has continued to rise.

But with the recent outbursts and deeply personal insults on perceived adversaries, we see evidence of fragility in that ego, and vulnerabilities that could be his undoing if not brought under control.

Criticism is an inevitable and necessary part of being a successful and powerful person or company.

As someone grows in power and influence, it is scrutiny and critique that helps to keep that person aware of what they are doing right and where they need to improve.

An emotionally healthy person is able to accept the criticism with grace, consider which parts of it may be valid, and integrate the valuable parts into their future actions.

As entrepreneurs, if our reaction in the face of criticism is to react with rage or respond with aggressive, irrelevant personal insults, it’s an indication of weakness in our ego.

It says we’re unwilling to consider and process the criticism being directed at us, and we’d prefer people to hold their tongues and treat us like the fabled naked emperor, than to speak what they believe to be the truth.

We can observe the role of the ego whenever we see a story of early success followed by a humiliating fall from grace.

At Uber, Travis Kalanick had a big enough ego to believe, correctly, that he could disrupt established taxi systems all over the world. But that ego blinded him to Uber’s toxic company culture, and the legal and ethical breaches that were happening under his watch, leading to his ousting as CEO.

At Zenefits, Parker Conrad’s ego empowered him to believe he could challenge the U.S. employee health insurance industry, but that same ego bred a hedonistic corporate culture that played fast and loose with state laws, endangering the company and leading to his removal as CEO.

At Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was a high achiever in early life and had solid successes as a software entrepreneur and science student, and came to believe she could could transform the medical testing industry. But was so beholden to that ego-driven belief, that she committed serious fraud, leading to the collapse of the company, severe legal penalties and likely irreparable damage to her reputation.

And at Apple, the famously ego-driven Steve Jobs built the company that set the standard in personal computing in the late 70s and early 80s, but his colleagues and directors found his ego-driven behaviour too difficult to work with, and drove him out of the company.

It’s notable that in the 13 years he spent away from Apple, Jobs devoted much attention to spirituality and mindfulness practices. Whilst his ego continued to be formidable in his second stint as CEO, his success during that period speaks for itself, and a more mature, balanced ego was likely a major factor.

Conversely, when we observe founders and leaders who have steered their companies from formation to vast success and held their leadership role throughout the journey, we can see approaches for keeping the ego in check.

Jeff Bezos’s annual letters to Amazon shareholders reveal the influence of concepts from mindfulness and stoic philosophy.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg has always relied on forthright advice from more experienced deputies such as Sheryl Sandberg, and has recently spoken of developing an interest in spirituality and including meditation as part of his daily routine.

Salesforce’s Mark Benioff has a spiritual advisor and regularly meditates.

LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and Slack’s Stewart Butterfield both have masters degrees in philosophy.

And Airbnb’s founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk, have always kept themselves grounded by being generous and humble in the way they’ve engaged with their community: hosting parties on the roof of their apartment building from the earliest days, travelling to all corners of the U.S. and the world to meet with their hosts and hear their stories, and continuing to be both Airbnb hosts and guests even as they’ve become vastly wealthy.

Of course, this is not to say that all criticism should be taken seriously.

Much criticism, particularly of high-profile people, is motivated by the critic’s own need for attention, catharsis, or in the case of today’s media, clickbait fodder.

In such cases, it can be justifiable to call out the critic and expose their true motives.

But if we react with aggression or cruel personal insults toward our critics, entrepreneurs only magnify the impact of the attack, and hurt ourselves more than the critics.

If we have a balanced ego, we can discern between criticism that is useful and that which is not, integrate what is of value and discard the rest, and progress more effectively towards our mission.