#78 Ego and Fear


"1. The “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.

2. Psychoanalysis. the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment.

3. Egotism; conceit; self-importance

4. Self-esteem or self-image; feelings"



" 1. A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

2. A specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.

3. Concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone's safety.

4. Reverential awe.

5.that which causes a feeling of being afraid; that of which a person is afraid."


The words ego and fear popped into my head this afternoon and it struck me that a lot of what happens in the work place, and especially at this time in the Army, seems to be related to those two concepts.

People in leadership positions must posess both of these qualities in order to be effective. They are both healthy and must become part of the personal Orientation of anyone who is responsible for others. I have to believe in myself, and I must also be aware of those things that frighten me or cause me worry and concern. I have to believe that at certain points I am the best person suited to handle the responsibilities assigned to me, and I must also learn to listen to those things that worry me. Both will have an impact on how I Observe the situation I am presented with and the choices I have at my disposal to handle it.

For Army leaders, ego and fear, deserve much more consideration than they currently receive because a leader's ego may allow them to make a decision that they would not normally make, and conversely their fear may drive them to not choose a course of action that might be risky, but successful.

The key it seems, is to keep them in balance. One cannot be lulled into thinking that their past successes are automatic proof of future success, nor can they allow their fear to stop them from acknowledging and taking risk when the situation warrants.

The important realization when looking at ego relative to leadership in the Army is the recognition that the entire military structure is designed, built upon, and rewards those with healthy (maybe even over-healthy) egos who have been placed in positions of authority and handed the power to implement their ideas. As our past successes build upon themselves, we quickly begin to believe that we are the reason for that success. And because the institution routinely rewards, promotes, lauds, and encourages us due to our success, we begin to believe that we have capabilities and judgement that others do not that allow these things to happen. In effect the thought process goes like this: "I have been successful in the past, received praise and promotion due to that success (many times at the expense of others) and have climbed the ladder faster than my peers. What I'm doing must be right, because I keep moving up and others don't." Ego is an automatic by-product of any hierarchical organization because the structure itself validates the decisions and outcomes at every level in a very public manner. The Army does this with awards, decorations, promotions and selections for command at senior levels. If Lieutenant Colonel X is selected to be a battalion commander and Lieutenant Colonel Y is not, and remains a staff officer, then X's past accomplishments are validated and Y's are not. This can often lead to a very serious case of believing your own bullshit. And quite honestly, there isn't much reason for you not to belive your own bullshit, when the system itself is validating you at every step on the hierarchical ladder.

Fear, on the other hand, can be just as disabling as ego is enabling. Fear will stop you from pursuing objectives, or in some cases, even considering different possibilities or outcomes, simply because the possibility of success may not be guaranteed. Fear acts to limit the available solutions to a problem. It also acts as a personal barrier to understanding the situation clearly and objectively because it imposes an emotional response in between the facts presented and the decisions we make. For example, if I fear that personal judgment from my superiors will have a negative effect on me then by definition it limits the possibilities that I can pursue to solve my problem and limits them to only to those that I do not believe will bring me discredit in my bosses' eyes.

"I know what it's like to have failed, baby
With the whole world lookin' on
I know what it's like to have soared
And come crashin' like a drunk on a bar room floor"

'All the Way Home' - Bruce Springsteen

These ideas came to light this week in two different manners. First, on AKO (Army Knowledge On-line) there was a discussion regarding post #77, "A Matter of Interpretation" between two people looking at the background history of Operation Market Garden and it's effect on the Battle of the Bulge. In my post, I alluded to the idea of ego and fear by asking why leaders ignored the signs that the German's were planning on offensive, and why facts supportng the German build-up were ignored by Allied commanders. While both these gentlemen are much more historically astute than I am, my thoughts were more closely centered around the idea of heuristics and ego. I simply made the case that the leaders didn't listen because they believed that the Allied invasion would inevitably lead to success. It had to. Everything said so. They had planned it, executed it, and over-seen it, and the German army was being systematically destroyed by their endeavors. Their self-confidence and firmly held belief that the Germans could not muster an offensive directly led to the Battle of the Bulge. More importantly though, I think it was their individual and collective egos that caused them not to hear or see the indications that an offensive was in fact being mounted. Intergalactic ego collides with tiny facts floating around the battlefield....

The other happened in my small world. A decision has been made to increase the number of personnel my team can train at any one time. That decision has required a lot of other decisions and adjustments with regard to resourcing, and Soldier thru-put. Almost overnight, my little piece of the deployment puzzle went from an afterthought to the flavor of the week. People scrambling for data, others asking questions they never cared about before, others trying to figure out when the whole thing became an issue in the first place (and why they didn't know about it). And the sad part is that no one thought to ask me or my team. We were not asked to attend any of the planning sessions or discussions concerning how we would process 23% more people through the same number of tasks in the same amount of time, with the same number of trainers, while changing the schedule and the classroom, and the range time. In fact, I was expressly informed at one point that my attendance was not required.

[Now, for the sake of argument, if the preceding paragraph sounds like a bit of bruised ego, there is some merit to that and I would only ask that you suspend that for a moment to consider the following:]

From my perspective, a lot of people immediately above me are a little worried now that someone higher than them is going to ask when this issue first came up, and what they did about it. There are others who's ego's are driving the train and are making decisions without all the information.

Ego and fear suddenly seem to be a little more intimately related than they might seem at first blush. As a matter of fact they seem to be sitting right next to each other in the briefing room. You can almost feel the people who have had previous success and have been rewarded for it by increased responsibility and position. They like the way that feels, and it how enhances their sense of self-ability. They have begun to believe that they will get it right every time. That is what their history, their training, and the institution have led them to believe. And now they are faced with the loss of some of that professional faith because, like those who didn't listen to the lady who saw the big German tanks, or Col 'Monk' Dickson, who said the Germans would attack in the Ardennes, they worry that they might have gotten it wrong.

Ego collides with fear.

The purpose of this post isn't to throw stones at anyone. It truly is not. I like the Springsteen quote above because it pretty accurately reflects the middle to latter part of my career. In my ealrier days, I was driven by ego and the belief that I was doing it better than the next guy, that my thought process and decisions were always right. I have also been the guy who came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor. I've had my professional value questioned, and my belief system thrown into disarray. I have been on both sides of the fence. And I understand those who believe in their own sense of perpetual rightness because I did the same for many years. And I understand those who no longer trust, and live in fear of being wrong because that was the trap that I could have easily fallen into.

The point of this post was to get you, the reader, to pause for a moment and consider the role ego and fear play in your decision making process. Quite honestly lives depend upon your awareness of these emotions because the decisions you make, carried out by others, often come down to either acting out of ego, or acting out of fear. To truly lead people, especially in combat, you have to be able to suspend both long enough to see the mission clearly and your responsibilities honestly. Believing your own bullshit can get kids killed. So can't being afraid to stand up when necessary. Ego and fear sort of balance each other out, if both can be seen clearly enough to concentrate on the mission - separate from our place in it.

A week ago my boss came to me and informed me of the increase in personnel required. I gathered my team and we sketched some immediate ideas on a white board. At the time, there were more questions than answers. A young Staff Sergeant, stared at the board for awhile, scribbled some stuff down, scratched some stuff out, thought about it over a weekend and developed the new plan. He had a problem to solve and he solved it. He and I worked for 3 days to put it into play, each checking and re-checking the other's work. Without ego or fear, and concentrating only on the mission we were assigned, this plan will be successful. Not because I believe it, and certainly not because my past history guarantees positive results every time, but rather because I have experienced both ego and failure and am learning how to use them to correctly orient myself to my world. E.O. had the answer. My job was to provide his answer to others. No more. No less.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post...it has great content for leader development....your use of the constructs ego and fear are spot on....and your description of how one's ego just grows and grows, as it is rewarded, is exactly right....to the point where many start to believe their shit does not stink...and the ONLY way to debunk but that myth is for that now egomaniac to to have their nuts crushed by a significant emotional event....(Mel Gibson?...John Edwards?....Eliot Spitzer?....Mike Tyson?....Tiger Woods?)....correct, I have not listed any military folks because I don't want to embarass anyone or get into a discussion that is not germane to this topic....

    self-awareness, self-reguation, and understanding the value of diversity of thought are all necessities for leaders to be as good as they can be and to make their units the best they can be....and leaders need to be comfortable enough in themselves to "fail" or "be wrong" in front of their outfits....

    "it is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit"....

    also, for leaders to REALLY develop subordinate leaders their has to be an element of risk....risk in giving the subordinate the opportunity (in a training environment) to do well or screw up.... we do learn best from our screw ups....just ask the egomaniacs listed above....

    sorry for the babble Fen, but I did want to comment.....JD