Since Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and other early psychologists introduced the word “ego” to the world, the word itself has become somewhat bastardized—mostly conflated with arrogance. But by definition, “ego” is simply a term for one’s conscious, observed, and expressed personality, i.e. what you think of as “yourself.”
In our culture, having a “big ego” is seen as “bad,” asserting that someone with an ego has an inflated sense of self-worth. On the other hand, there is praise for one who has “tamed the ego,” which is seen as a good thing because it means this person has developed humility and doesn’t place themselves above (nor below) others. I admit to using both of these pop-culture memes, but also understand that they aren’t entirely accurate.
In my experience developing effective leaders and teams, a central theme of my coaching has been to help people with “big egos” lead with more humility and authenticity. But do we really “tame” these egos as if they were wild animals?
No, not really. It’s less of a “taming” and more of an “overcoming.”
First, it’s important to understand a bit about how the ego actually works. The ego personality is heavily influenced by desire for pleasure and happiness, aversion to pain and suffering, and fear of the unknown. But it’s also true that patterns and biases are also programmed into the mind from caregivers, peers, culture, or genetics (nature versus nurture). (Freud called this part of the mind the “id,” or subconscious.) The part of you that is aware of your thinking and is able to differentiate moral from immoral behavior is considered the super-ego, or super-consciousness. (This is the “witnessing you” that watches the “ego you” about to eat the cake, saying, “Don’t do it, don’t eat that cake… dang it, you ate the cake!”)
The assertion that having an ego means you’re arrogant can’t be accurate; otherwise, we would all be arrogant because we all have egos. What’s really meant by this idea is that one’s personality is driven by subconscious programming that influences behavior in a negative way.
In the case of an arrogant person, shame has likely stunted his or her ego development, leading to a pattern of overcompensation. This overcompensation leads to an inflated sense of self-worth because of a neediness to be seen or heard. The loud braggart or puffy-chested know-it-all is actually just suffering from unresolved childhood trauma. With some effective therapy or coaching, that individual can bring the shadow and compensatory behavior into the light of their awareness, allowing them to “catch up” to the ego’s development. This work will, in time, translate into humbler, and thus more effective, leadership.
So, “taming the ego” actually means to do the work of overcoming developmental blocks such as this by bringing them to light, one by one. These trauma shadows and compensatory behaviors are common. They overlap and intertwine and are deeply grooved into a personality, so this work takes time and requires courage.
However, “taming the ego” to serve with humility is important work for a leader who has an important mission to accomplish in his or her life.