3 Leadership Lessons from Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday


Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday is a foundational book that frees us up to truly be successful by thinking about ourselves less. This is a concept that has become somewhat cliche – to get what you want, help people get what they want. Holiday, however, tackles this issue from a much deeper level, exposing how our ego gets in the way of our success often without us realizing it.

The go we see most commonly goes by a more causal definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. …. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as [Bill Walsh] explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.” This is the ego … that “sucks us down like the law of gravity.” –Ryan Holiday

Holiday splits the book up into three sections: Aspire (humble in our aspirations), Success (gracious in our success), and Failure (resilient in our failures). In this post we will highlight three essential leadership lessons, one from each section.

1. Self-Awareness Is The Single Most Critical Skill A Person Can Master

If you ask someone to list the qualities they want in a leader, humility is often at the top.

Our cultural values, according to Holiday, make us dependent on validation. We’re told we can accomplish anything if “you put your mind to it.” This actually causes us to be weak.

The trap it creates is an entitlement to success. We focus and visualize a grandiose big picture of success, and think we will somehow just get there. It is a self-absorbed way of seeing the world.

The more difficult route is one of self-awareness. Without it, improvement is impossible.

Holiday says the solution is to think big, but act and live small.

Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative… –Ryan Holiday

A person must almost rise above themselves and look down and critically assess their strengths and weaknesses. This is the only way to identify areas of improvement and be able to accept critical feedback. That is the foundation for true humility, not a narcissistic false-modesty.

2. Without The Right Values, Success is Brief

The trap of success is self-delusion. We concoct a false reality, as Holiday outlines:

In the Mad Men era of corporate America, there was a major drinking problem, but ego has the same roots – insecurity, fear, a dislike for brutal objectivity. “Whether in middle management or top management, unbridled personal egotism blinds a man to the realities around him; more and more he comes to live in a world of his own imagination; and because he sincerely believes he can do no wrong, he becomes a menace to the men and women who have to work under his direction,”… –Ryan Holiday

Success can intoxicate someone into drinking their own Kool-Aid. The solution is to create a system that is focused on the work instead of us.

Think about cases like Enron. After a certain point, they became disconnected from reality and never recovered. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford, expounds upon this point in great detail in his book Leadership BS. He talks about how many leaders tend to look at the story of their own success with a heavy dose of revisionist history. The ego is the root of that.

A system means having a focus on the values. Kent Thiry, CEO of DaVita, gives a great way of doing this. Staff should have regular meetings about a company’s core values. There needs to be accountability built in to see how those values are being met. Many places have values plastered on a wall, but they aren’t measured.

If you focus on a systematic implementation of values, you enjoy a higher level of success without the trappings of ego.

3. Change the Definition of Success

Operating from a values perspective means being process focused instead of outcome focused. This is tough to swallow because it makes it gives the appearance of an indifference to results.

It’s quite the opposite. The only way to attain results is by being focused on the things you do each day to improve. John Maxwell calls ‘Process’ one of the foundational 21 Laws of Leadership.

Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” –Ryan Holiday

In short, the work is enough.

Holiday sums it up beautifully, “Do your work. Do it well. Then ‘let go and let God.’ That’s all there needs to be.”


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