Ego and Leadership

Think back to your days in college when you took Psychology, and you learned about Sigmund Freud's three components of our personalities: ego, superego, and id. No, this article is not a refresher in psychology, but a look at how our ego affects leadership, especially in the fire service. 

The ego is generally thought of as the "manager" part of ourselves – the part that sorts through reality and makes conscious decisions. Ego also defines our identity – how we see ourselves and how others see us. Aside from the psychological origins of the term, when describing others, most people refer to the ego as a person's sense of self – their self-esteem or self-importance.  

As we rise through the ranks, we acquire more power. And with that, people are more likely to want to please us by listening more attentively, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes. All of these tickle the ego. And when the ego is stroked, it grows. 

An unchecked ego can warp our perspective or twist our values. When we are caught in the grip of the ego's craving for more power, we lose control. Ego makes us susceptible to manipulation; it narrows our field of vision; and it corrupts our behavior, often causing us to act against our values or the organization's values. 

Our ego is like a target we carry with us. And like any target, the bigger it is, the more vulnerable it is to being hit. In this way, an inflated ego makes it easier for others to take advantage of us. Because our ego craves positive attention, it can make us susceptible to manipulation. It makes us predictable. When people know this, they can play to our ego. When we're a victim of our need to be seen as great, we end up being led to making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our friends/family, and our organization. 

An inflated ego corrupts our behavior. When we believe we're the sole creators of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we gather from our failures. 

Finally, an inflated ego narrows our vision. The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe. A big ego makes us have a strong confirmation bias. Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our community stakeholders. 

Breaking free of an overly protective or inflated ego and avoiding the leadership bubble is an important and challenging job. It requires selflessness, reflection, and courage. Here are a few tips that will help you keep your ego in check: 

  • Consider the perks and privileges you are being offered in your role. Some of them enable you to do your job effectively, and that's great. But some of them are simply perks to promote your status and power and, ultimately, your ego. Consider which privileges you can let go of so your ego does not inflate. 
  • Support, develop, and work with people who won't feed your ego. Hire or promote intelligent people with the confidence to speak up when your inflated ego goes off in a meeting. 
  • Humility and gratitude are cornerstones of selflessness. Make a habit of taking a moment at the end of each day to reflect on all the people that were part of making you successful on that day. This helps you develop a natural sense of humility by seeing how you are not the only cause of your success. And end the reflection by actively sending a message of gratitude to those people. 

The inflated ego that comes with success – the bigger salary, the nicer office, the easy laughs – often makes us feel as if we've found the eternal answer to being a leader. But the reality is, we haven't. Leadership is about people, and people change every day. If we believe we've found the universal key to leading people, we've just lost it. If we let our ego determine what we see, hear, and believe, we've let our past success damage our future success. 

Until next time, be safe! 



Assistant Chief Jo-Ann Lorber, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, JLorber@fortlauderdale.gov, Chief Lorber has been a member of the IAFC since 2005. She is the Chair for the EFO Section and a member of the Emergency Management Committee and Program Planning Committee and Council. 

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