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The Ego Paradox

Nov 27, 2022

“The paradox of board leadership is that, while you might earn a seat on a board of directors thanks to your abilities, knowledge, or popularity, serving well as a board member means leaving your ego behind.” – Susan Mogensen, Brown Dog Consulting

It’s not a surprise that, as a general rule, board directors have healthy egos. After all, they’re most often selected from among the ranks of successful business people, entrepreneurs, professionals, and academics. Each one brings their own expertise, roles, responsibilities, goals, and agendas. They take pride in their own independence and objectivity.

Yet each one must ultimately work as part of a wider team to make decisions in the best interests of the organization.

So how does the typical board director reconcile their individual need for ego satisfaction with their role as a relatively anonymous member of a group? Do they have to park their ego at the door, or is there a legitimate place for ego? The answer is yes to both questions. And that’s the ego paradox.

 

The View from Management

When I started looking for resources on this topic for The Savvy Director blog, it didn’t take long for my own ego to be seriously dented. That’s because some of the most intriguing and compelling articles on the subject are written from the point of view of the organization’s CEO or Executive Director. And I’m sorry to say they’re not flattering.

Consider, for example, this brutal assessment from the article ‘Board members, please check your egos at the door.’

“Many board members have warped perceptions of their importance, combined with delusions of wisdom. Board members’ egos can be one of the most aggravating things about working in this field. It is probably one of the biggest drivers of EDs/CEOs quitting their jobs to pursue a career in real estate.”

As a board director, reading a comment like this – and others in the Resources section below - might get your back up. Or maybe they hurt your feelings and make you feel a little deflated. That could be your bruised ego talking.

 

Egos in the Boardroom

We all have an ego. It helps us distinguish ourselves from others. It lets us maintain our self-image and self-esteem. But there are times when ego gets in the way. In the boardroom, that can happen when our need to look good and be right conflicts with our duty to act in the best interests of the organization.

When each director’s need to be right becomes paramount, the result is less open dialogue, failure to really listen, a breakdown in empathy, and poorer decisions. And at times, it can lead to open conflict among board directors.

“Ask yourself this: Have you ever met someone with a big ego who was really good at being open-minded? Really good at reflectively listening? At putting himself in another’s shoes? At playing well with others? At saying, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘Your idea is better than mine,’ or, ‘You’re right’? Didn’t think so.” – Edward D. Hess

Let’s explore some of the boardroom behaviors where we, as directors, allow our ego to get in the way.

We overestimate how much we know. Let’s face it. We’re almost guaranteed to know less than management on just about everything related to the organization. After all, management spends significantly more time working in the organization. So, when we find ourselves disagreeing with management, it’s good practice to remind ourselves that we have a fraction of the information and experience that management has. Keeping that in mind, maybe we should reflect for a minute before weighing in on the topic.

We over value our expertise. Many of us have special expertise that we’ve acquired during our careers. But sometimes that expertise doesn’t translate well to another organization or a different sector. A good example is expertise gained in the corporate world that may not fit perfectly in the non-profit sector. Our expertise might be helpful in a particular situation, but then again it might not be, and could actually be counter productive. So, once again, let’s stop to think about it before contributing expertise that could just make things worse.

We fail to recognize our own biases. We all bring our personal experiences and biases to the board table. That’s expected – we’re human beings after all. But there’s a problem when we extrapolate from our own experience to the general population. As stated in the article ‘Board members, please check your egos at the door,’

“If you’ve never been a parent, you may not be supportive of paid family leave. If you’ve never worked as a case manager, you may never understand burnout. If you’re a white male, you’ll never comprehend what it’s like for women and people of color.”

What that means is that we don’t recognize our own privilege and we don’t realize how the narrowness of our experience fundamentally affects our support or opposition to management’s recommendations. Let’s try to remain open to the experiences and viewpoints of others. One of the best ways to do that is to ask questions rather than make statements. (Read our blog Biases ‘R’ Us for more on this topic.)

We forget that board authority is group authority. Each of us must understand that board authority is used as a group. No individual director – including the board chair - has any individual authority unless it’s been assigned to them in the bylaws or delegated to them by the board as a whole. Individual board members can’t make policies or direct management to do anything. So, let’s remember that, when we speak on our own, we have absolutely no formal power.

We want to get credit for our own ideas. Occasionally, I hear from a director who wants to get credit for an idea or a work product that they came up with. I usually tell these folks that, if getting credit for their individual work is important to them, maybe the boardroom is not the best place to be. Failing to be acknowledged for your work might be a problem in the workplace, but at the board table it’s a common occurrence. To avoid getting frustrated and resentful, let’s just accept the fact that you can get a lot done when you’re not worried about who gets the credit.

We dig in our heels on immaterial issues. Our egos may be adding to the CEO’s stress level if we insist on getting our own way on personal requests like approving leave or granting raises. The article ‘Board members, please check your egos at the door’ tells of a CEO who contemplates resigning because of directors’ attitudes on matters like these. In such situations, let’s remember to think about what’s best for the organization in the long run, rather than about winning the current battle.

We don’t realize when it’s time for us to go. It’s hard to admit it, but sometimes the best thing we can do is leave the board. Just because we were helpful to the organization at a different time or in a different context, it doesn’t mean we’re still adding value. Let’s ask ourselves whether we’re helping or hindering the organization, and whether the board might be better off with new directors. (Read our blog When It’s Time to Go for more on this topic.)

 

A Little Ego Is a Good Thing

Okay, despite all the pitfalls, ego can be a good thing in the boardroom. Even though the word ‘ego’ has become shorthand for ‘inflated or over-sized ego,’ in reality, all it means is the conscious mind, that part of our identity that we consider our ‘self.’ So, if we use ‘ego’ to mean confidence in our abilities, that’s not so bad. As Rachel Amesbury says in the article ‘How to manage (and allow) ego in the boardroom,’

“Some ego mixed with wisdom and self-awareness is the best combination for the boardroom.”

After all, organizations want confident people who are willing to speak up and question each other’s perspectives. It’s important to bring in people who, in addition to passion and confidence, also have the self-awareness to work with those they disagree with for the good of the organization. (Read our blog Seeing Ourselves Clearly for more about self-awareness.)

When it comes to managing egos on the board, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. But there are a few common themes.

Ensure the good of the organization is at the heart of every decision. It’s hard for directors to completely put aside their personal rivalries and opinions. It never hurts to remind people that judging a decision solely for the good of the organization is what they’re there to do, even if they don’t personally like it.

Manage Disruptive Conflict. When people are fighting for their own opinions rather than considering what’s best for the organization, it’s disruptive to a board’s effectiveness. The challenge is to depersonalize tension and create an environment of constructive challenge instead. Read our blog Resolving Inevitable Conflicts for more on this topic.

Select an Effective Board Chair. The board chair should have the greatest knowledge and understanding of each director’s different talents and experience. They should use this to sensitively channel their egos in a positive direction, fostering an atmosphere of constructive challenge and ensuring that all feel they are making a contribution.

“Boards of directors can drive the accomplishment of so much good in this world, but only if they pay attention to the 'we' over the 'me.'"– Susan Mogensen, Brown Dog Consulting

 

Your takeaways:

  • The paradox of board directors’ egos is that they’re selected because of their considerable skills and knowledge, but, for the good of the organization, they have to park their egos at the door.
  • At times, we all exhibit behaviors where our egos get in the way. A healthy dose of self-awareness helps us keep it under control.
  • A little ego in the boardroom is a good thing. It gives you the confidence to make a contribution and influence decisions. The key is to channel your ego for the good of the organization.

 

Resources:

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.

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