Early on in the film Top Gun, Maverick and Goose are receiving some personal counseling from the USS Enterprise’s CAG (Commander Air Group), callsign “Stinger.” While acknowledging Maverick’s bravery in escorting his wingman back to the landing deck after a harrowing encounter with a pair of Soviet MIG-28s, Stinger delivers a stark personal warning to the young fighter pilot: “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” It’s a moment that makes for a memorable—and quotable—movie line, but it’s also a sentiment that probably needs to be shared much more often than it is.
Is Having an Ego a Bad Thing?
Ego itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, a strong ego in a leader is a necessity. In a 2017 article for Wired, author Chris Edmonds described how the ego is a vital tool for “understanding the worldview through which you act,” providing a psychological and cognitive framework for becoming “self-actualized while also demonstrating to others how to make their own way.” In practice, the ego is an essential leadership tool for not only comprehending and achieving your own needs, but those of others, as well. A healthy ego is a measure of self-esteem, confidence, and ability; it is also a significant factor in leading teams and working through and with others to build toward success.
But ego typically gets more negative attention than positive. Most often, we associate “ego” with narcissism, where someone’s ego becomes the enemy of good leadership and inevitably leads to adverse consequences. As the ego spirals out of control, it creates an inflated sense of self-importance, a need to always be right, and a compulsion to disregard the opinions of others, especially those that don’t reinforce their perspective. Perhaps ironically, the raging ego is driven by a lack of confidence and self-esteem, which causes someone to over-compensate with aggressive, authoritarian actions: rash decision-making, dominating others, and controlling behavior.
Keeping the Ego in Check
Taming the raging ego isn’t that difficult, but it does require a degree of self-awareness and a fair amount of humility.
First, you can’t hide from your ego. It exists. Acknowledge and respect it, but don’t deny it. Your ego serves an important purpose, and you have to embrace it to leverage it to success. A great leader understands that the ego is a powerful tool and uses it to equally great effect. They just keep their egos on a very tight leash.
Second, remember that you’re not always the smartest person in the room. The best leaders are lifelong learners. They acknowledge that learning never stops and are constantly seeking to improve their own level of knowledge and understanding. The greatest leaders are those who surround themselves with intelligent people and don’t feel threatened by their presence.
Third, never compare yourself to others. If you’re constantly struggling to keep up with someone else, you’ve lost focus on your own ideals and aspirations. Set your goals high and work hard to achieve them. Success doesn’t come with keeping up with the crowd, it comes with setting the standard by which everyone else measures greatness.
Fourth, embrace servant leadership. Serve a higher purpose than yourself. Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden earned success through what he called his “MBA”—a mop and bucket attitude. Forget the job titles: a true leader does whatever necessary to ensure everyone in an organization succeeds. In short, it’s not about you, it’s about them.
Finally, lead from the heart. Be true to yourself; be genuine. A leader strong enough to show compassion, empathy, and humility will build a loyal following while keeping their ego firmly in check. It doesn’t mean you can’t be confident and celebrate your success, but that you never forget those around you and their needs, as well. It’s a team effort, after all.
Taming the raging ego isn’t all that difficult, but it does take self-reflection. You don’t need to have all the answers. You don’t always have to be right. Don’t let your fears run your life. Let others take the lead once in a while. These aren’t signs of weakness, they’re reflections of your own strength and confidence. They signal to others that you’re someone worth following, someone who doesn’t let ego get in the way of being a good leader.
Unless, of course, you’d rather be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong.