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Who’s the boss? The leader or his ego?

Leaders are not robots. They stand out from the rest of the team thanks to their heightened energy and emotions, which they can apply constructively and on the condition that they are able to turn reactions into responses. A true leader responds rather than reacts, says Jacek Santorski, psychologist, during an interview with Małgorzata Mierżyńska, journalist of Newsweek Psychologia.


Leadership: inherent trait or learned skill?

NEWSWEEK PSYCHOLOGIA: Are leaders born or do people become leaders through learning?

JACEK SANTORSKI: I know too much to answer this question unequivocally. Besides, the search is still ongoing. One thing we do know is that a tendency to lead, to display a stronger energy, a determination and a greater emotional engagement may be strongly co-related with personal characteristics and with inherent temperament traits. However, genes are not responsible for the ability to successfully manage or the capability to set priorities. Management is a learned skill, which is related to the implementation of a vision and correlated with leading people towards a goal.

But there are leaders who emerge spontaneously, in response to a current need, people who have never learned how to manage people.

It does happen that someone, who you would never suspect of leadership qualities, becomes a leader. It is called incidental leadership. For example, Ewa Komorowska, the wife a Polish diplomat and a former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stanisław Komorowski, who died in the Smoleńsk air crash in 2010. When she came to the conclusion that the speculations related to the cause of the crash, the false accusations and the divisions that began to occur shortly after the crash, are an awkward attempt at dealing with trauma, she decided to organize a trip to the place of the tragic crash, as soon as possible. She acted according to the rule that if you fall off a horse, you must get back on it as soon as possible. She convinced many family members of the crash victims and the First Lady, to charter a plane and to travel to Smoleńsk, as a form of therapy. She took care of the safety, the security, she convinced a doctor, a priest and a few therapists to form a sort of a psychological and spiritual escort for the families and to travel with these people to the place of the crash.

She had a vision, she convinced others about it and she implemented the project. She coordinated the whole thing and at the same time she appeared in the media and led a very toned down, yet moving - one might even say a charismatic - communication campaign, related to coping with this terrible loss, which was very needed at the time. During the year of mourning, she organized two trips to the place of the crash and she was instrumental in calming down the emotions related to the accident. She did all this, despite the fact that for years, as a diplomat’s wife, she had been only a house wife. Suddenly, she became a social leader of a very diverse group. She became the face of a certain type of message related to the crash, which was so unique and needed at the time. However after a year of mourning, she put away her black clothes and retreated to her home and teaching. Perhaps in the future, knowing what she is capable of, she will apply her capabilities to another cause.

Ego: high self-esteem or complexes?

Do all leaders have a big ego?

It is not a zero-sum game, but mature leaders do have big egos. And in the simpler, primary model of leadership it is the reverse situation, i.e. the ego ‘owns’ the leader.

I’ve always thought that a big ego stems from a high self-esteem or sometimes form an excessive self-esteem. However, looking at some leaders, managers and politicians, one could be under the impression that it is the opposite. A big ego stems from complexes, lack of assertiveness and a camouflaged low self-esteem.

Exactly. A hyper-inflated ago stems from all these things. A big healthy ego comes from confidence. If you had a good childhood that included a mother, who hugged you and when you were ready to leave, she said “I believe in you” and she did not panic when you climbed trees; and if you had a father, who took you skating, skiing and asked for your help in fixing the car, then when you are twenty, you can be a confident young woman or a man and you can become “somebody” in your peer group. I have a big and healthy ego so I am resilient in the face of failures. I don’t get angry, if something doesn’t go according to plan. I don’t see a lost game as a failure.

On the other hand, a hyper-inflated ago compensates for something not fully grown. A hyper-inflated ago often stems from narcissistic mechanisms. People suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder have a strong need to be special, because they have experienced being nobody. It could have been related to real humiliation inflicted by parents, babysitters or friends or related to indirect humiliation, such as emotional abuse. It is very devastating for people.

A hyper-inflated ago compensates for something not fully grown. A hyper-inflated ago often stems from narcissistic mechanisms. People suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder have a strong need to be special, because they have experienced being a nobody. Narcissists who think that they have been criticized or reprimanded in any way, feel extreme anger and power.

Is a big ego helpful or is it an hindrance?

Is a big ego like a turbo engine that pushes you to achieve goals or rather is it a hindrance?

It is not black and white. It is a spectrum. Narcissists who think that they have been criticized or reprimanded in any way, feel extreme anger and power. They may use it to destroy or at least to discredit the source of the negative assessment. For example, if the work of a narcissist is audited and the audit is negative, the narcissist will claim that the auditors are idiots and he/she will reject the auditing firm. But it may happen, that the narcissist will want to prove to the world that he/she is as good as the others imagine. Ego may motivate someone to work hard and compete with others.

So leaders with a hyper-inflated ego may be useful in business?

Of course. Sometimes for a long time, when these types of leaders are leading organizations from point A to point B on “anaerobic respiration”.

Even if they lose many valuable employees?

For the sake of political correctness, one should say that it does not pay to be egotistical, but I know many people with hyper-inflated egos in the business world and in the arts, who are doing very well, so this conclusion would be hard to support. It is rather a matter of balance. Sometimes, an organization will get a greater beneficiary than the leader himself or herself. If you work in a company led by a leader with a mega ego, but you enter and leave at the right moment, i.e. at the time of euphoria and development, then this episode will be a positive experience for you. The loss-benefit criteria begin to kick in, when you discover values, when you begin to understand what is really important for you; when you begin to differentiate between having admiration or respect of others, a relation of servitude or love; when you choose between making a superficial impression or having a real impact and between having a clear conscience that lets you sleep at night or taking sleeping pills to get a good night’s sleep.

Ego and emotions

What is the relation between an ego and emotions? Is strong ego impervious to emotional outbursts? And the weaker the ego the more it is susceptible to emotions? Does this type of relation exist?

You can be dealing with a psychopathic despot with a hyper-inflated ego and a Machiavellian mind who, in cold blood, manipulates people, information and facts. Psychopaths can very accurately recognize people’s motives, complexes, fears and weak points, but they don’t feel empathy. Actually, except for a royally pissed off ego and anger that someone dares to stand in their way or that something is not going their way, they don’t know other feelings. On the other hand, you could be faced with a person who has a narcissistic or a narcissistic-hysterical personality, someone who gets angry, apoplectic, often makes scenes and treats every failure and negative feedback as an attack on their person.

So on the one side you have a cold despot and on the other one, you have a boorish master. Both of them have a hyper-inflated ego, but a weak ego. The first one has a controlling ego of the type: “I am the master of the world, of other people, their bodies, their souls, and their money and I will keep my power over them with the use of every possible manipulation.” In the second case, the control and power are more hysterical and stronger related to bouts of anger, tirades, sulking and door slamming.

So the second type of the leader is more prone to emotions?

He or she is emotional. However, they are leaders with big, but weak egos. A strong ego knows its place.

But being emotional is rather a hindrance for a leader.

Emotions are necessary. Leaders are not robots. They stand out from the rest of the team thanks to their heightened energy and emotions, which they can apply constructively. On the condition that they are able to turn reactions to responses.

And can they surrender to emotions?

They decide when to surrender and when not to. If I have a strong ego, I surrender to emotions at home, but not at the moment when someone cuts me off in a line up. At the time, I am able to tell myself that I will not invest emotionally in relations with strangers. I control my ego and I can stop my anger from rising. I am aware of my ego and at the same time I am in control. I don’t quash it, but I don’t let it control me. I take a deep breath, I swing the lever and I let it go, when the whole thing is not worth it. It is called anger management. The lever technique leads you to a state where you control your ego, not vice versa.

Victor Frankl, author of therapies based on values, claimed that a human being does not have to react impulsively or automatically, but that he or she can respond. He claimed that the key to being human is responsibility. Responsibility understood not only as being responsible, but most of all an ability to respond. True leaders respond instead of reacting. In some situations, they may decide to use “coaching anger” to wake up the team and say: “the result you have produced does not fulfill criteria a, b and c and it is not acceptable. I will not rest until we fix it.” They raise the voices, but it is a type of anger used by sport coaches toward their teams. However, they don’t use judging or negative statements, such as: “you are worthless”, or “it’s your fault”, etc.

Passion, obsession and leadership

Sometimes people use adjectives such as: engaged, magnetic, passionate, in relation to some leaders. Where is the line between passion and obsession?

There is a cynical saying that you have to pay for obsessions, while you make money on passions. Passion may turn into determination and implementation. My motto is: vision without implementation is a hallucination. I can walk around and talk about my visions to anyone who would listen, but if no one follows me then I am just a weird guy, who walks around and talks to himself. But if people will walk with me for a bit, it means that I have ignited some social reaction. If I lead the people, it means that I have created an infrastructure and that the reaction is becoming a movement.

Currently, some leaders have emerged in Poland. There are women who take to the streets with umbrellas (abortion law related so-called black protests in Poland, where women carried black umbrellas), KOD (the Committee for the Defense of Democracy) members who organize marches and various other protests, but for now these are just grassroots movements. Advanced leadership, which would grow into a social movement and would turn this passion and anger into a series of initiatives leading to an actual change, has not emerged from these movements so far.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that nowadays social movements do not have leaders, but rather horizontal structures with group leadership?

It is true, there are some horizontal movements. For example, in case of ACTA it was discovered almost by a miracle who the initiators were. The Euromaidan began with one text message, but none of these movements have survived.

The anti-austerity movement in Spain did survive.

Because some leaders able to translate passion into implementation have emerged from the grassroots movement. They were not only motivated, but also determined and they have developed a program and a plan. Not just slogans. Right now, businesses that specialize in new technologies or those that operate on the verge of various areas, such as new technologies, culture and social initiatives are extremely interesting. There are dozens of visionaries in this segment of industry, but to develop a start-up and to secure an investor, you need a business plan. You must define what products you will create, what are the risks, what results do you expect and when do you expect to break even. Your vision and motivation must turn into determination and implementation. It requires tons of energy and is not very spectacular. You must be very disciplined. Discipline is the key to leadership and management. Discipline is the mother of success, in business, in arts and even in love. If a man wants to love like a Romeo not like an Al Bundy, he also needs discipline.

So a real leader is a disciplined enthusiast?


And someone who is obsessed with something loses control.

Yes. He or she might initiate something and even mange to continue it for a while, but then everything will collapse or someone else, who knows how to manage, will take over.

The less competencies, the more emotions?

What is the relation between emotions and competencies? Is there a relation of the type: the less competencies, the more emotions?

There are different categories of emotions. First of all, there are emotional competencies, such as the ability to be guided by and to be in control of one’s own emotions as well as empathy and the ability to develop relationships with others, which takes emotions into consideration, etc. On the other hand, there are management skills related to goal setting, project management, etc. However, business experience indicates that the most important leadership skill is executive intelligence. It is an ability to notice leverage, which gives you 300 when you have invested 100. It is an awareness that tells you: “we must abandon this project, although we have invested a lot in it.” It is an ability to foresee how different people in the team will behave in the time of a crises. Emotions may impede executive intelligence. To know when to shut down a project, I need mature love, not the state of euphoria and the state of being in love head over heels with my project. There is a creative and dialectic tension between executive intelligence and emotional intelligence.

The Monte Carlo Fallacy is an interesting example. It is based on the mistaken assumption that past results impose a probabilistic bias on future events, so in the face of failure, you are prepared to double your efforts and resources just to prove that you were right. As the result your losses are growing. Or on the contrary, you are going from one success to the next, so you are overextending and going the path of the unsustainable growth. The 2008 crises was the result of unsustainable growth. Susan Cain understood this and described it in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

But everyone knows that the 2008 crises was caused by the immature, psychopathic, hysterical and full of testosterone men from Wall Street, who had created the speculation bubble.

Susan Cain shows that it was not the case. In her opinion, extroverts, both women and men, were at fault. If more introverts were included in the decision making groups and more introverts, who are more self-aware, hence can better control the Monte Carlo Fallacy, held power, perhaps the crisis could have been avoided. Since then, competencies and predispositions related to introversion are increasingly being promoted in business.

In other words, long live diversity.

Hip, hip, hurray!


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/17”.
The magazine is available here »

jacek santorski

About the Author

Jacek Santorski - psychologist specializing in business leadership, mentor of the management and leadership program at SWPS University. His academic background, coupled with extensive experience in the role of business advisor, has resulted in the development of a very effective management and leadership program that combines psychology with management techniques and personal development.

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