Leadership development series: Strategies to keep your ego in check
Ego is a daunting obstacle to overcome on the path to success as a new leader
By Chief Ron Camacho
“Most of us aren’t egomaniacs, but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others.” — Ryan Holiday
Whether you get your news from social media or more traditional outlets, you cannot help but notice headlines regarding scandals involving police officers. Of course, scandals come in differing severities; the rank of the officer does not matter. But, from a big-city chief to a small-town deputy, one common factor is almost always associated with their misdeeds – a problem with ego.
The blinking neon sign of someone with an inflated ego is easy to identify. “The rules don’t apply to me” and “Do as I say, not as I do” are some of the common attitudes they display. While not all issues associated with ego or insecurity result in criminal acts or scandals, a leader’s uncontrolled ego can cause an inefficient, ineffective, unsafe and possibly toxic work environment. The earlier a supervisor recognizes and addresses their issues with ego, the better chance they have to develop strategies to keep their ego in check.
“With great power comes great responsibility” is a quote popularized in Marvel’s Spider-Man comics and films and is used to warn a young Peter Parker that his newly acquired powers carry a heavier burden than he fully understands. The same sentiments can also be said for recently promoted supervisors.
Does a new corporal or sergeant genuinely understand the tremendous power they possess? Are they ready to accept the responsibilities and authority of the position? Do they know how to keep from falling for the intoxicating effects that a promotion can bring? Are their self-esteem and egos healthy enough to withstand the rigors of command?
Think about the times your ego stopped you from succeeding in a task or caused damage to a meaningful relationship. As leaders, we are in the “people business,” and it is hard enough to connect positively with our employees without having our ego as an additional impediment. Ego is a daunting obstacle to overcome on the path to success. Do not let it bring you down; learn from it and let the lessons empower you.
5 tips to keep your ego in check
Here are five tips to help supervisors become humble, confident and influential leaders:
- Find a mentor or coach: At times, we all need help accomplishing our goals. A good mentor or coach can be one answer to winning the war against ego. While often intermingled, a mentor and a coach have different roles. A mentor is an experienced person who provides career guidance and advice. The mentor has stepped on the “landmines” and can now show you how to go around them. An executive coach does not provide the answers; they help their clients reach their own conclusions through encouragement in an inspirational process. Executive coaches are used with much success in the corporate world. Law enforcement agencies are slowly starting to warm to the idea of employing external coaches.
Develop self-awareness: Self-awareness – the process of becoming aware of one’s motivations, desires and feelings – can be a powerful tool used to recognize and defeat an inflated ego. When we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident, have stronger relationships and communicate effectively. There is also an external component of self-awareness: recognizing and understanding how others see us.
To explain this concept, I often use the analogy, “Is the person you see in the mirror every day the same person everyone else sees.” Supervisors with egos see themselves differently than their peers and employees do, which causes friction and, eventually, a strained working environment. A self-aware person leaves behind all the pretentiousness and ego which is associated with bad leadership. They can build meaningful relationships based on trust, one of the main pillars of good leadership.
One method to gain self-awareness is to ask yourself “what” questions instead of “why” questions. “Why” questions tend to concentrate on the negative and are based on emotion: “Why do my officers not respect me?” In contrast, “what” questions are objective and focused: “What are the factors causing my officer’s not to respect me?” So next time you encounter a leadership issue, ask the “what” questions to arrive at actionable solutions rather than continue down a path of hurt emotions and bruised egos by using the “why.”
- Practice an “it’s not about me” philosophy: Selfishness is a trait associated with people possessing large egos. A positive leadership technique used to overcome the selfish elements of ego is to prioritize your people over yourself by simply following this mantra: It is not about me. If you have difficulty remembering the phrase, use “post-it” notes, write it on a whiteboard, make a sign, or wear a wristband with the words on it. The slogan constantly reminds you that your job as a leader is not about personal accomplishments. As a supervisor and leader, you are in the “people business.” The more time you spend thinking about the needs of your officers, the less time you will spend on selfish pursuits. Following this technique is an excellent way to gain your officer’s trust and quickly establish a positive work culture.
- Read and research: History is filled with cautionary tales where leaders let their hubris overcome their common sense with disastrous results. It is incumbent upon police supervisors to study past leaders from any field of study and not replicate their mistakes. It does not matter if the leader is a famous politician, military general, or well-known corporate figure. The lessons are the same; an unchecked ego eventually leads to failure. There are also many books and articles devoted to overcoming one’s ego or others that provide instruction on improving or developing self-awareness. If you are not a reader, YouTube is filled with academics and experts providing instruction on suppressing your ego and developing self-awareness.
- Lead by example: Being accountable is another tactic used to overcome ego. Leading by example is the ultimate test of accountability. Your actions and demeanor speak louder than words when you lead by example. Leaders who follow this philosophy are inspirational and build motivated confident teams. You are setting the “standard” for others to follow. Deviation from those standards will cause your officers to do the same. Dissension and discord among your officers will be sure to follow. However, maintaining the standard is a great way to keep your ego in check while building trust and gaining the loyalty of your people.
Top tip: The value of a “truth bomb”
Many instructors take a personal affront when students are not responding to the training they are given. The same occurs when a supervisor deals with an officer who constantly violates policy and procedures. Take a second to examine if ego is not the root cause of their inability to accept instruction or follow the rules. Remember, an inflated ego does not allow your information to come into their minds or retain the instruction they received.
To break down the walls their ego puts up, have an honest conversation about it. In our current times, honest dialog about problems and issues is often a foreign concept. Supervisors and employees do a “dance” around the issue and never get a solid resolution to the problem. The “truth bomb” can cut through the administrative and sensitive layers that surround difficult conversations. Speaking plainly and honestly can help you and the officer quickly get to the bottom of the problem.
A truth bomb should not be used demeaningly; you are trying to lower the “shields” around an officer, not strengthen them. When combined with empathy and understanding, using a “truth bomb” will set the tone of the conversation, get to the heart of the issue and ultimately resolve it. On multiple occasions, after successfully using a truth bomb, employees stated they appreciated my candor. Some even said it was the first time in their career that they felt a supervisor was truthful with them.
Grizont S. (January 18, 2018). Three Ways To Control Your Ego And Stop Thinking So Much (Without Having To Meditate). Forbes.
Holiday R. (2016). Ego is the Enemy. New York, New York: Portfolio, Penguin.
Rodriguez RL. (February 14, 2022). Self-Esteem and Ego: 7 Differences. Exploring Your Mind.
About the author
Chief Ron Camacho is an accomplished law enforcement executive with 27 years of experience and currently serves as the chief of the Chambersburg Police Department. He is a nationally published author with articles covering the topics of police leadership, team building and overcoming ego-related issues. He graduated from the FBI National Academy, 239th session, and has a Master of Science in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. He is an executive performance coach with Performance Protocol and owns Camacho Consulting, a leadership and management training company. He can be reached at email@example.com.