Hero-worshipping in the corporate world is bad, yet there is a worse phenomenon called egocentrism. First, let us understand this disgusting egocentric behaviour.
An egocentric person is one who holds the view that ego is the centre of all life’s experience; thus one who is self-interested, confined in attitude or interest to one’s own needs and/ or affairs.
Egocentrism is the “mental disease condition” of being egocentric.
At the outset, let me say that appreciating oneself should not be confused with egocentrism. This reminds me of high school days when I came across a conversation in Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo was talking to Nwakibie who had lent him yam seeds.
Okonkwo talked of his self-reliance through the proverb: “The lizard that jumped from a high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.”
Indeed the lizard has a right to motivate himself, but only if no one else does.
In leadership, self-praise best happens in solitude, in the comfort of your home through reflection, a concept that I will discuss in future instalments of this column.
We are reasonably aware that leadership is about getting the organisation moving in a particular desirable direction with the help of the available human capital. No leader can achieve any meaningful business results without the assistance of the team around him or her.
As much as leaders are allowed to look back at the results they achieve and feel proud; self-pride should not be part of their manifested behaviour. Pride is at the centre of egocentrism, but remember, pride goes before a fall.
We cannot shy away from the reality that a leadership position will attract the attention of society towards the incumbent. The gap in power between a leader and the led will almost certainly be felt and acknowledged by all.
The followers will certainly always devise a way of showing respect to the one above them. A reverend title will almost always be conferred on a leadership incumbent. Common titles are boss, chef or in the local languages affectionately bestowed titles such as mudhara, skhulu and mother.
Should you go further north of the Zambezi river on our beloved continent you get titles such as oga, chief, bwana, m’kubwa and other worshipful designations. It is naturally a duty of the followers to respect, but not fear their leaders; no argument on that, just that there has to be a good measure of humility from the leader.
Leaders exist within the context of the society at large, a milieu of power differences, which gives leaders the impetus to feel the supremacy of power. Leadership will always carry a social prestige, derived from the incumbent’s power to determine the direction and destiny of others, all augmented by the level of hero-worship that followers bestow on the bearer of power.
Given the social prestige of a leadership position in society, it is important to safeguard that the prestige of the position will not get to a leader’s head. Once pride takes over a leader’s mind, then the feeling of self-importance manifests itself in egocentrism.
The media can make or destroy a person.
Ask some of the unfortunate public figures, they will tell you how they initially made headlines in good light and ended up being the topic for bad news. From calling press conferences to chronicle oneself, some leaders have been observed to regress to the point of saying “I was misquoted” progressing to “I am sorry, no comment at the moment” and ultimately the media would resort to saying “unfortunately, we could not get an official comment because he has lately been avoiding the press”.
If unguarded, the media frenzy will fuel an inherent celebrity inclination and an increasingly egocentric view of the world within the leader. We are definitely seeing the leader egocentrism that continues to bedevil the business world.
Get me right here; I do agree that good publicity for leaders is an important part of marketing. But the problem arises when the paid publicists realise that once they make a celebrity out of a leader who signs their cheques, they have a cash cow for the milking. Why not make money through leaders who sponsor their own image. Leaders would raise the bar by first co-branding themselves in conjunction with their organisations’ brands.
Greed for fame pushes the leaders to subordinate the organisations’ brands to their own. In these cases, the celebrity status of the leader becomes the goal itself, rather than the earned result of achievements of the organisation. Publicity should not be personalised around the leader but should be for the organisation.
There is a good reason why some leaders are media shy, chiefly grounded by beliefs around humility.
Let us then focus on the most likely effects of the egocentric leaders on those team members around them. Think back to the flamboyant celebrities you know: movie stars, musicians and many others. Everything around them is about themselves. Almost everyone around them is subservient to the celebrity’s personal fame. They are either bodyguards, drivers or those without real job descriptions called aides.
Once the leader embarks on the celebrity ego trip, the team around him/her virtually becomes escorts and aides. The organisational decisions that will be made would have to suit the leader’s ego first and then by chance they could also be remotely aligned to the long-term good of the organisation. Statements to the media will be given in a “shoot from the hip” style; of course, celebrities have to say something to the media and make sure the paparazzi get photos from their better side of posture.
The team around a celebrity will almost always get alienated from important decisions; which will be the sole responsibility of the boss. Of course, the celebrity gets to make the impulsive public statements then meets with the team in the organisation to tell them: “This is what we will do, I don’t care how you will achieve it. Give me the results; after all I pay you all to do just that …”
Does that sound like something you have heard before? Who would not want to get to do as told if they do not have an alternative means of putting food on the table. The master speaks and the servant executes.
Are celebrities aware that people will give their best when they feel they are being respected and that their efforts create value. If they are reduced to mere servants, they will do just enough to avoid the axe.
A leader who is occupied with his own self-image sends the message to those around him that they are not respected and what they do is not valuable. Ego-driven leaders have no time to develop their successors. I am not surprised because they do not want to share the limelight with anyone.
The best test to catch egocentrism in leaders is to note the number of times they use the word “I” and “my” in most of what they say about the organisation. Some will talk of “my organisation”; I would excuse those who are sole owners of businesses on this one.
Believe me, no truly egocentric leader will admit he/she has a problem. To the leader, be honest with yourself; how many times do you feel more important than those around? Shhh!, don’t tell anyone, just reform yourself because if you want to go quickly, go alone but, if you want to go far, go with others.
Success for leaders will be enhanced by being people-centric; and the people are the team in the organisation and the customers.
For those whose egos I have bruised, please take note of this disclaimer: Any reader’s extrapolation of resemblance to an individual living or dead, self or other, is fortunately an illustration through which important leadership humility lessons should be learnt”. Take heed of the wise African ancestors who said: “ears that do not listen to advice accompany the head when it is chopped off”.
Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter handle: @samhlabati