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Management without ego

We want things to go fast. We eat fast, we speak fast, we travel fast, we work fast and we think fast. As a result, we sometimes forget the unbelievable knowledge that human beings have accumulated through literacy. All throughout human history, writing has taken an important place in the quest to discover human thoughts and ideas.

« Who speaks sows, who listens reaps. »

Nowadays, speech is the preferred means of human communication. In our mass-media environment, we give lots of credit to « motivational speakers » and communication gurus: Tony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuk, Simon Sinek, and many other stars on LinkedIn, Instagram or YouTube. They are everywhere. We watch them, like them, share them, but we rarely read them, except to print some « motivational quotes » to put on LinkedIn posts. Our corporate environments follow the same trend. In many companies, we are looking for « leaders » and « ambitious managers » willing to boost their careers.

Think about your last corporate meeting. Who was the leading person? The one who was taking the lead, asking questions, replying to his own questions and monopolizing the attention. Think about this person and his role in your company. In many cases, he will be seen as a confident person, as a leader, as a performer and even worse, as an example. Be prepared. Because if this person is not your manager, he will become it very soon.

Why? Because we have a tendency to vote for whoever’s showing the most external sign of confidence. After all, if you were a CEO (or if you are), you would prefer someone bringing you solutions than someone bringing you problems. But even if some Sales or Business Developers are very persuasive during their first years, that doesn’t mean they will be your best manager in the future. As described by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull with their renowned «Peter’s principle», Macbeth was a fantastic warrior and winning commandant before he became a terrible king. And Socrates was an outstanding teacher but a terrible defense attorney, unable to find the right arguments in front of the court.

By looking for an ambitious manager who does everything better than the others and who makes sure that everybody knows it, we create bad examples. The message received by younger generations is now to become like these candidates who absolutely need to show that they know everything in order to quickly become the rising star.

Listening is no longer wanted. You need talking. You need showing.

In their book « Leadership in action », Daniel Eppling and Laurent Magnien describe these people as « Level 1 managers who do not allow others to express themselves, listen to themselves speaking, cut in and interrupt suddenly ». It is particularly true during lunches or corporate events, in which Level 1 managers often see as a great occasion to be the center of attention.

Unfortunately, these attitudes are perceived as ridiculous and inappropriate by coworkers and team members. And as it is often the one listening who creates the meaning and not the one speaking, the impact of such behaviours can be terrible for a company. By not listening to others and being egocentric, we send them the message that we do not care about them. This can be tolerated for a non-managing role, but how could you accept that from someone who is supposed to lead a team?

In « The Rules of Management », Richard Templar depicts the three locks of a programmed deafness: « I already know; I’m right; I’m not in the mood to listen ». As you probably noticed it, bossy managers often present the two first symptoms. They also tend to forget that all our

messages - verbal or non-verbal - are polluted. As written by Daniel Epplong and Laurent Magnien, there exists nine potential reasons to not understand the other during a discussion: "What I think, what I want to say, what I think I’m saying, what I say, what you want to hear, what you hear, what you think you understand, what you want to understand, what you do understand ». In the case of someone explaining to you how great he did throughout his entire career, and by extension compared to how little you did, how many potential reasons of misunderstanding could you identify?

If as described by Jia Lin in his commentary of Sun Tzu, Art of War, « Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline », it seems to be quite far from the best example. Although the ability to speak effectively is a highly sought-after skill, developing listening skills is often not regarded in the same respect. In fact, listening is just as important as speaking. In a workplace, effective listening leads to fewer errors, less wasted time and improved accuracy. After all, would you accept a prescription from a doctor who has not listened during the visit?

We eventually have to consider being a manager as a skill and not a promotion. Even if, as mentioned by Richard Templar, « being a manager is an ongoing learning experience. You never stand still and you never think you know it all », CEOs still need to be pragmatic when looking at the strengths of their managers. Being a manager requires a good combination of interpersonal, emotional, listening and functional/technical skills. Moreover, as a manager, it is key to not only be an example but also to be exemplary. Richard Templar describes this necessity as an obligation for the manager to set the standards: « You will have to be organized, dedicated, ruthlessly efficient and focused. If you don’t care, why should they? You’ve got to set an example in everything you do, think before you speak, consider how you react. Be what you want to see in them ».

By promoting managers who firstly think about themselves, about their career and performance, we automatically create unpleasant environments that are counterproductive for business. As a reaction, many companies feel the need to adjust their image and actively promote their employee’s well-being at work, emphasizing good work-life balance and other childish initiatives such as hiring Chief Happiness Officers. They believe that organizing team-building activities, buying a table football and providing free fruits will make employees accept the attitude of their manager, improve commitment and create a greater sense of belonging in their firm.

« The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real ». Freud

Richard Templar explains that managers should make members of their team better than themselves, « which means trusting them, getting them the best resources, training them to take over from you, trusting them not to stab you in the back when it’s time to take over and being confident enough in your own abilities not to be jealous of them ». If we follow this principle, a good manager would be the one accompanying his colleagues in their learning process, their path to performance and success. It would be a person who listen to them, mainly thinks about them, about the interest of the company and who would understand that he is not a super hero supposed to know everything but a facilitator to reach their common targets.

In « Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? » written in 1784, Kant use the Latin term « Sapere aude » (« Dare to know »), to explain that human beings are naturally skilled for the use of reason. He encourages people to liberate themselves from their self-incurred immaturity and to eventually find the courage to break despotism and manipulation through public discourses. Nicolas Bouzou and Julia de Funès are not far from defending the same principles when they write, regarding gamification at work and team-building activities: « Is it not taking employees for children to encourage them to participate in such stupid activities, or even worse, for dummies? We should stop making them believe that they become actors of change by playing. In this new world of « entertainment », we are forcing employees to accept a new type of management based on pedagogy, games and understanding. We know that it can be positive in some aspects, but understanding is not infantilizing, and easiness always has a dark face. It is a low-cost vision of action that is given by these activities, while the real action refers to being responsible and accountable for what we do ». Like them, many specialists believe that using such activities to transpose play into a professional context is nothing but hypocritical and fallacious. They also explain that the confrontation with the real, which means work, knowledge, reflection, listening and reading, is nowadays replaced by juvenile management that consists of having fun as a rule and having pleasure as a principle. On the contrary, being an adult would be going from fun to reality, entertainment to work and fun to responsibility, without excluding cheerfulness.

« That which is essential is invisible to the eye ». Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Today, our vision of management is clearly different than it was some years ago. Our managers 4.0 sometimes feel untouchable because they think being a manager is proof of their top-class quality. Our companies need to understand the daily message sent from the job market: we do not want these personalities anymore. We do not want a leader who sometimes takes the blame for his team, but never gives them the credit. Or worse, someone who only gives the credit to « his » team to make sure everyone knows who is really responsible.

A manager is someone able to understand that he is nothing without his team, that he can’t motivate people with his « fantastic » leadership abilities and that he can only help them motivate themselves. It is also someone able to control his communication, verbal and non-verbal. It is someone able to let others express themselves and grow. It is someone who can control his ego and instead use his superego, which Freud depicts as the ethical component of human personality that provides us our moral standards. In other words, superego is this little voice that tells you «think before your speak » or « no, you should not react like this ». In the book « Leadership without ego », Bob Davies presents to Isaac Getz and Brian Carney his vision of leadership and says « If you think you are special, you are not! If you take a chain, pile it up and then push it, what direction will it go? Nowhere you can predict and not very far. If you take it by the end and pull it, which way will it go? It will follow you. Leadership is not about what sets you apart from those you lead—it’s about what binds you together. It is not about controlling others—it’s about trusting others. It’s not about your achievements—it’s about unleashing your team’s greatness. In short, leadership really isn’t about you—it’s about your people ».

One of the rarest commodity in corporate environment is management without ego and the most successful managers of tomorrow will probably be those able to understand this. During the 10th annual Drucker forum in Vienna, Isaac Getz also gave his opinion on how modern managers would need to behave: « Because many higher ups believe they are the most intelligent people in the organization, they never ask for their employees’ ideas thus treating them like infants. Treat your employees like the adults they are and give them the freedom they crave. Only then you will be able to create a new version of your company where people go because they want to, not because they have to, and where instead of doing just 9-to-5 they do their absolute best to realize your company’s vision. So here is my message: The true measure of leadership is in its redundancy ».

History is full of bad leadership stories. We previously mentioned the examples of Macbeth and Socrates who reached their level of incompetence when going to another role. What was their common reason to explain their fall? « This role is not challenging enough ». For anyone working in consulting, this answer should remind them of some previous discussions with their colleagues. As written before, being a manager should not be a promotion anymore, but a skill. Let’s hope companies will finally understand that this role deserves more than 2019 versions of Jordan Belfort.

Thibaut Griboval

AION Consulting


Laurence J. Peter, Raymond Hull; Peter’s principle; 2014

Daniel Eppling, Laurent Magnien; Leadership in action; 2005

Richard Templar; The Rules of Management; 2011

Jia Lin; Masters Notes to Sun Tzus Art of War- Traditional Chinese Culture Library; 2009

Sigmund Freud; Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming; 1908

Emmanuel Kant; Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?; 1784

Nicolas Bouzou, Julia de Funès; La comédie (in)humaine; 2018

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Le Petit Prince; 1943

Sigmund Freud; The ego and the id; 1923

Bob Davies, Isaac Getz, Brian Carney; Leadership without ego; 2018

Isaac Getz; Leadership without ego;; 2018

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