Ducks following the leader

Leading Without Ego

The lede of an interview in which I was recently featured ended up being the notion of not being precious with your ideas—as a result, that concept has been the topic of conversation quite a bit over the last few weeks. As often happens, the most common question to arise also happened to be the most obvious one:

How do you avoid being precious with your ideas?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just not doing so; devotion to your own ideas, your code, your own thoughts—all of that devotion is rooted in ego. In order to be able to dispassionately kill off your babies in favor of someone else’s, you have to diminish ego’s involvement.

In my experience, there is only one way to decrease ego1, and that is by increasing empathy.

There is no room for both empathy and ego in the same decision, so for me, that has been the secret to leading without ego—leading with empathy. Alex Harms wrote a fantastic book on the topic entitled “Little Guide to Empathetic Technical Leadership” that I highly recommend. I am not going to rehash her points here, the ebook is cheap and you can read it for free online, so go do that instead. Rather, I’d like to share with you one tool that I have used to help me down that road.

That tool is active listening; and a huge part of listening actively is watching for signs that I’m not paying attention as well as I could be. A rule of thumb that I use is that if I’m not taking a few seconds to compose my thoughts between when someone else stops speaking and I start responding, I’m probably formulating my response instead of actually listening. I take that as a cue to be more attentive and hear what is being said.

I further my active listening by attempting to parrot back what the other person is saying—but while I’m doing so I try to put myself in their position and understand WHY they are saying it. In this way, I’m attempting to apply some degree of empathy to their situation before I even chime in.

So how does this relate back to not being precious with my ideas? In changing the nature of my part of the conversation—by shifting my focus from my thoughts to the thoughts and needs of others in the conversation—I also shift my focus from my ideas to the best solution to the problem at hand. I no longer have the ability to be as precious with my ideas because I’m too focused on consciously practicing empathy.


1 And nobody that has met me would argue that I don’t have a tremendous amount of ego to move out of the way. (back)