It will come as little surprise to anyone that politicians have big egos. This point
came home to me again and again as I read the concluding volume in Taylor
Branchs trilogy,
At Canaans Edge: America in the King Years: 1965–1968.In
page after page, the figure of Lyndon Johnson looms, and in reading the tran-
scripts of recordings made of his Oval Office conversations, I was struck by the
number of times he used the pronoun
I or referred to something or someone
my. Johnson was a colossal figure, both in stature and in influence; he wield-
ed power in the Senate through a mixture of understanding, fear, and compro-
mise. Those skills would be amplified in his presidency.
It must have been very intimidating to listen to Johnson rail to staffers or
complain to friends and associates about “my war” and how he could not
become the first president to lose a war. Over the phone, Johnson confided to
long-time friend Senator Richard Russell about “the great trouble I’m under.
He continued, “The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare. He
concluded this conversation, wistfully, “Well, if they say I inherited [the war],
I’ll be lucky. But they all say that I created it…” With the hindsight of history
Leaders need to hold themselves above the fray, but sometimes
they need to invest the power of their personality
in order to effect positive change.
“There is a road from the eye to the heart
that does not go through the intellect.”
we see how this war was so terribly wrong but at the time Johnson was con-
vinced he was right.
Ego Rules
CEOs, too, possess a strong sense of ego. You cannot lead without a strong belief
in your own abilities. If you want others to follow, you have to demonstrate that
you have what it takes to lead them. Followers will look to you for guidance;
they want to see strength. However, all too often, leaders impose their ego over
the entire organization.
Chainsaw Al Dunlap was a classic autocratic leader; he berated individuals
and intimidated them. He was out for personal enrichment. When ego comes
before common sense, bad things can happen, as we saw with Johnson in
Vietnam. At the same time, leadership is about making tough decisions—not all
the decisions, but the mighty ones. So a degree of personalization—in terms of
decisiveness and confidence—is vital. Knowing when to exert ego is essential.
Here are some things to consider.
Listen. Leadership is rarely a solo act; it depends on harmony between leader
and follower. One way that leaders tune in to that harmony is through listen-
ing. Among its virtues, listening demonstrates that you care what others have to
say, and also that you are willing to entertain alternate points of view. So often,
leaders get in trouble when they wall themselves off from reality. This is a com-
plaint that was often lodged against the administration of George W. Bush. The
president walled himself off from diverse opinions and relied on a handful of
close aides who could be counted on to give him advice that supported his own
worldview. By contrast, leaders who make it a point to reach out are less likely
to be so insular.
Look to your bench. Carol Bartz stepped down from the helm of AutoDesk
in May 2006. The person replacing her, Carl Bass, is someone she once fired.
Bass eventually returned to the fold and Bartz realized that his strengths out-
weighed any negatives. She also understood that it was time for her to leave to
enable Bass to lead the company. Bartz, like many chief executives, understands
that there are many capable leaders within successful organizations. All these
leaders need is a chance to exert themselves. Good leaders provide challenges

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