Why the Ego Is an Obstacle to Mindful Leadership

Why the Ego Is an Obstacle to Mindful Leadership


In-the-moment presence can be an awfully tricky thing for leaders to find in an age of multitasking and mixed priorities. But it’s also a skill we can’t afford to neglect. Steve Mizell, CHRO of Merck, told me that he believes one of the most critical skills for leaders today is to slow down and be more fully present with people, to really check in, and to listen more deeply. And this is even more important when some of what we’re called to do includes tasks that aren’t necessarily easy: enforcing a rule, giving constructive feedback, canceling a project, laying someone off. “As leaders we have great impact on the people we lead,” Steve said. “And sometimes we have to do difficult things. In those situations, it is imperative that we are truly present and take the time to get vested in our people’s current state of mind.” 

Amid challenges, however, it is difficult to be fully present. We are easily distracted. It can be hard to slow down when we have so much to do. And even when we are able to be “in the moment,” we can get caught up in our own stories and projections about what is happening. We can be influenced by our biases or driven by our ego. This is why cultivating a mindful leadership style includes becoming more aware of how our ego’s self-serving tendencies can undermine our best intentions. 

Understanding Your Ego 

Our ego—that is, our individualistic sense of self—is designed to protect us and help keep us safe. The ego is the little voice inside our head, generated by the default mode network in the brain, that looks out for Number One, for the purpose of protecting us from harm. 

Most people, leaders included, don’t like to think that we are egoistic. We like to think of ourselves as being kind, generous, and thoughtful toward others. And although we can be all those positive things, we have all experienced moments when we are unkind, selfish, and self-centered. 

The ego often poses an obstacle to mindful leadership. It can easily manipulate you into thinking that what it wants is for the greater good, but its focus is self-centered. As a result, sometimes it can get in the way of our natural ability to care about others. This can be especially true in the workplace, where there is so much focus on individual performance and success.

In contrast to these egoistic impulses, human beings are most often compelled to exhibit compassion and care for others—what many teachings refer to as our intrinsic goodness. The worst comes out, however, when we fail to manage our ego’s natural drive for self-preservation. When the ego takes over, we are driven by our fears of losing prestige, money, or influence. This can drive us to make decisions that are (for example) narrowly focused on the bottom line. When this happens, our actions toward others can be detrimental and even cold-hearted.

Being aware of the dangers of rampant ego provides an opportunity for us to enhance awareness of how our brain works and to act in ways that are more in line with our values. Through mindfulness training, we can gradually rewire our brains to be less self-oriented and more selflessly attuned to others.

A 6-Step Mindful Awareness Exercise

Mindful awareness helps us manage our attention by enabling us to be aware of what is happening within the landscape of our mind. It helps us to be more attentive to our external environment, as well as our internal processes, including what we are thinking and feeling. With greater mindful awareness, we can be more intentional about where we choose to place our attention and what we choose to let go of. We can change the ratio of our conscious to unconsciousness behaviors, which can be the difference between making wise or unwise decisions. 

Do you know what mindful awareness feels like? Follow these steps to take a moment to experience it: 

  1. Take your eyes off the screen. For one minute, sit still with your eyes closed or downcast.
  2. Whatever comes into your mind, be aware of it. Simply notice it. 
  3. Let go of any inner commentary on why you are doing this exercise. 
  4. No analyzing, no judging, no thinking
  5. Simply be aware: of your feet, your seat, your belly, the temperature on your skin, sound entering your ears, light entering your eyes. 
  6. Just be. 

This is awareness: a direct experience of what is happening to you in this very moment. Mindful awareness is the starting point for becoming a wise leader. It helps you to take a step back from the ego’s domineering voice, understand more of the inner workings of your internal landscape, and be more objective in how you manage your mind—and your teams. In this sense, mindful awareness is the foundation for any leadership journey.

The Benefits of Staying Present with Others

When we commit to being mindfully aware, along with better understanding of our egos and our thoughts, we should be set, right? Well, not quite. Being present with others means that we need to tune in to what they are experiencing and what they’re communicating. Despite our best intentions—and even with increased self-awareness—this is not easy. But mindfulness practice helps. 

Our data shows that when leaders practice mindfulness, they experience less stress and more connection with others. Mindfulness practice allows leaders to be more in tune with their direct reports. Mindful leaders more frequently experienced a sense of shared and mutual understanding of the world with their direct reports. 

Furthermore, when leaders practiced mindfulness frequently, this had a tangible impact on their direct reports, who experienced lower burnout, higher job satisfaction, job engagement, organizational commitment, and improved job performance. Our results also suggest that the impact of leaders’ mindfulness on their employees’ outcomes is channeled through wise compassion. In other words, leaders who practice mindfulness become wiser and more compassionate, and that in turn means that their direct reports are doing better. 

In many ways, mindfulness practice is a means for unlocking other positive leadership behaviors. But before you can look too far ahead, pausing to cultivate and sustain a mindfulness practice is an important step in becoming a more aware, wiser, and more compassionate leader. You can practice the next time you catch your mind wandering during a 1:1 interaction: Notice if your ego is getting in the way, bring yourself back to the present, and focus on the one you’re with.

Adapted from: Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things in A Human Way by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, January 18, 2022.

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