Leaders need to drop their egos. Here’s how they can do it

April 16, 2024

Leaders need to drop their egos. Here’s how they can do it

In his new book, Steve Dennis breaks down how business leaders can transform their teams.

BY Steve Dennis

Executive ego dysfunction often has a seemingly contrary symptom. Although we may feel all-powerful, like complete masters of our domain who are always fully in charge, deep down many of suffer from bouts of imposter syndrome. It’s really two sides of the same coin.

Imposter syndrome is often defined as the frequent or persistent feeling that our success is not deserved. Even worse, we may be deathly afraid that at any time somebody is going to discover we have little or no idea what we are doing.

When we are feeling the shame of not being good enough, a lot of coping styles can start driving the bus, as Dr. Valerie Young has researched. We can become a perfectionist, working hard to not make even a single mistake that could expose us as a fraud. We can become the rugged individualist, taking on everything ourselves so no one ever has a chance to spot a weakness. Another style is the expert. Here, we go overboard on research and analysis so that our argument is bulletproof.

Or we may go into superhero mode, working ourselves to the bone so we don’t miss anything.

These forms of coping manifest differently than being overly confident in our abilities, but they are just as powerful in getting in the way of effective leadership and can be particularly pernicious when it comes to driving transformation efforts. Our insecurities can keep us horribly stuck—if we let them.

You’re probably wrong

As leaders, much of our compensation (both monetary and psychological) comes from being right. But there’s a problem with being right.

When we are convinced we are right, we often grasp too tightly to getting our way, becoming overly attached to the outcome. I used to joke that I was always one new iteration of a PowerPoint deck away from persuading anybody of anything. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly not by much. There is also a good chance that you are, in fact, wrong. Not necessarily wildly and irresponsibly wrong, but when we assume we have all the answers, we close ourselves off to other points of view or other more valuable possibilities.

Having been the head of strategy at two Fortune 500 companies, and now a strategy advisor, author, and keynote speaker, making recommendations and trying to persuade folks to adopt what I advance as deep insight and wisdom is pretty much my job. For most of my life, I acted as if I was supremely confident that I was right and believed that if I could not convince you, I was a failure.

Being much less certain that we have all the answers may not be celebrated in most corporate cultures, but it is necessary to get better results from your innovation efforts. It also has the side benefit of decreasing the odds that you will drive yourself and those around you insane.

The wisdom of uncertainty 

As leaders, many of us are taught to be confident, to exude certainty, to never let them see us sweat. Any wavering is seen as weakness.

But absolute certainty does not exist. And lack of it is neither good nor bad. Uncertainty is neutral.

In an uncertain world, it is not surprising that we seek the safety of knowing something for sure. But mostly it is a trap our ego beckons us into.

Embracing uncertainty creates a sense of wonder, of discernment, of curiosity—all incredibly valuable skills for driving creativity and seeing a wider range of options and actions. Pushing back and challenging those places where we feel certain helps us unlock limiting beliefs that may keep us stuck.

Consider all the beliefs that the auto industry held on to that kept them from embracing electric vehicles far earlier. Or those in the taxi industry who mostly sat around and watched Uber and Lyft transform their industry. Or the folks at BlackBerry who hung onto the idea that a mobile phone must have a keyboard while the iPhone revolutionized the ways we communicate.

What we often need to do is not learn or study more in attempt to become more certain, but to unlearn what we believe to be unchangeable so that infinite potential has a chance to reveal itself.

Most importantly, we must cultivate what Zen Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind means letting go of certainty and taking on an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of bias when studying, much as a beginner would.

Experienced leaders, like all mortals, struggle with preconceived notions, confirmation bias, blind spots, and a belief that what has made them successful in the past is likely to serve them well in the future. Many of us carry around a very particular hammer, hoping to pound a very particular set of nails. But we need to be careful what we worship, be it money, power, fame, or any other thing or belief that impedes our progress. For that which we worship, we risk becoming.

In his brilliant book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, bestselling author and Wharton professor Adam Grant stresses the importance of intellectual humility, curiosity, and a willingness to challenge our own beliefs to become more successful in navigating the future.

In one chapter he points to three things we cling to at the expense of being open to possibilities that may serve us better. They’re worth summarizing here:

1.  Assumptions: Grant emphasizes the need to question our assumptions and be open to changing our beliefs when new evidence or perspectives emerge. He argues that many of our assumptions are based on outdated information or biases, and by challenging them, we can discover new insights and make better decisions.

2. Instincts: He encourages readers to be cautious of relying solely on their gut feelings. Although instincts can be valuable in certain situations, they can also lead us astray, particularly when faced with complex or unfamiliar problems.

3.  Habits: Grant suggests that our habits can sometimes hinder our ability to think critically and adapt to new information. He advocates for a mindset of continuous learning and growth, which involves being open to feedback, actively seeking out new perspectives, and being willing to unlearn and relearn.

Leaders need to drop their egos. Here’s how they can do it

When I read this section of the book, I was caught between two strong emotions: satisfaction that he had articulated something so important and bitterness that I hadn’t realized it earlier in my career, when my ego was in full protection mode.

Winning the ovarian lottery 

Humility isn’t a good policy just because we don’t know what we don’t know. Or because we’re all subject to a tangle of biases, wrong assumptions, and bad habits. It’s also because we may be far luckier than we realize—or care to admit.

Billionaire Warren Buffett reminds us to not discount the role blind luck plays in our good fortunes, specifically the time, place, and conditions under which we were born. It’s an idea derived from philosopher John Rawls’s classic A Theory of Justice and likely influenced by the concept of “ovarian roulette” from psychologist Dr. Reginald Lourie.

Related to this notion is the saying “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple,” which is generally attributed to football coach Barry Switzer. It’s possible that you weren’t born into a position of considerable privilege and that literally everything good that’s ever happened to you is completely a function of your hard work, resilience, genius, and devastatingly charming personality.

It’s possible, but it’s not likely.

This is not to say you haven’t earned much of what you accomplished. But our ego is great at propping up the “I deserve it” story and conveniently ignoring the role of serendipity and advantages that were granted to us for whatever reason.

Is it just possible that someone else did all the right things, just like you, but things turned out very differently for them? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Gray is my new favorite color

Few things are as black and white as they seem. But as leaders we are often trained to see them as such. Working or not. Right or wrong. Profitable or unprofitable. Do you want to go with this, or do you want to go with that?

Related to the idea of the wisdom of uncertainty is letting go of dualistic thinking and accepting there is a lot more texture and nuance to much of what we need to deal with. Transformation is messy, and the right answer, the preferred course of action, is rarely all that clear from the outset.

We need to wade in murky waters and walk down many misty avenues before clarity of action will reveal itself. In later chapters I will suggest how mind leaps can help us accelerate our journey. But as we get started down a new path, finding greater humility and letting go of rigid views of how the world works will set us up to leap successfully.


Until quite recently, vulnerability was not a word that got used very much when it came to desirable leadership qualities. Although I have not done an exhaustive search, I doubt it appears much in the work of highly regarded corporate strategists, innovation specialists, or those who claim to be futurists.

There are many definitions of vulnerability. For me, it has come to mean having the emotional courage to expose myself and be seen for who I really am and what is really going on with me.

In every place I have ever worked, being vulnerable was not discussed—it was tacitly (and often overtly) discouraged. I was taught from an early age not to show my emotions and mostly to figure out things for myself. In my corporate experience, the messages were work hard, suck it up, and keep your personal stuff to yourself.

But it’s clearly not just where I have happened to work. We are surrounded by messages that to be vulnerable is to be weak. Hustle porn is a regular feature of popular personal productivity books, YouTube videos, and social media posts. Clearly it’s more than a gendered issue, but the notion of vulnerability as a desirable trait, particularly for those who identify as men, is undercut by toxic, old-fashioned ideas of what it means to be a man.

Aside from the vast psychological damage this can do— and here I very much speak from personal experience—failure to be vulnerable closes us off from so many possibilities. If we are willing to bravely bring people into any creative process or complex problem-solving endeavor, we are almost certain to leap to places far beyond where we could on our own.

I cannot possibly do justice to this topic in a few hundred words. For a far deeper dive, I would point you to Brené Brown’s amazing work on this subject and more broadly on the topic of courageous leadership. But I wholeheartedly believe that to create the foundation for meaningful transformation, we must make the shift from closed to open, from protective to vulnerable.

Excerpted with permission from LEADERS LEAP: Transforming Your Company at the Speed of Disruption by Steve Dennis. 

Steve Dennis is a strategy consultant, keynote speaker, podcast host, and author. He’s been a senior executive at two Fortune 500 companies and been named a top global retail influencer by more than a dozen organizations. 



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