Stay in the military long enough, and you’ll gain rank. Rank comes with privileges and responsibilities. But it also comes with something else: something more dangerous. Ego.
Now, one might say that if you’re aiming to be a leader in the military then you’re going to have ego anyways. People who strive for leadership positions have certain inherent qualities that are prone to takeover by ego: self-confident, and motivated. These aren’t bad things at all, but over time, they can overtake the good habits and tendencies to create self-serving, toxic monsters.
Let’s be honest: we all have worked with these monsters before. Sometimes, maybe we’ve even been those monsters a time or two. It ain’t pretty. And those monsters destroy morale, efficiency, and can rip out the heart and soul of a unit. In short, ego monsters are the bane of the Army.
Ego creates formulaic, by the book officers who are afraid to deviate from the norm lest it look bad on them. They focus on metrics rather than an ethos. They are managers; they are not leaders. They dictate; they do not inspire.
And yet, they survive within the system. Since they do not battle with the system – and since the system is geared towards metric-leaning self-aggrandizers – these managers continue to get promoted. Until suddenly they’re running entire organizations. And then we wonder why we have so few leaders in the Army and so many managers.
Ego creates an echo chamber, as well. Those who are self-obsessed cannot abide to be contradicted. They will surround themselves with people who think like themselves, preaching the gospel of the status quo above all else. Thus, managers breed more managers.
Leaders must strive through their careers to hold their egos in check. This can be done a number of ways. One, self-awareness. Train yourself to be aware of your own strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Know what potentially detrimental qualities about yourself you need to avoid and what you need to work on.
Second, as you move through your career, ensure that you make friends along the way who will hold you accountable. The ones who will take you aside and be like, “What the hell are you doing?” when the ego monster begins to rise. Having honest peers is a surefire way to maintain humility – and those same friends will be there for you when the yes-men fade away.
Third, read. Read a lot. Read and learn. The great secret of learning is that the more you learn, the more you realize just how little you know. This will combat ego while giving you the tools of what to know. Continuous growth and assessment can serve as a check to ego.
Fourth, and last, never forget that you are a servant. You serve the people of the United States. You serve the leaders above you as a steward of resources. You serve your peers, as someone who can be relied upon. And you serve your Soldiers, to train and equip them to be ready for any mission.
All leaders are fighting their own battles. If you can overcome the battle within yourself, you might just be able to help others in their struggles and create an organization where people feel valued, are motivated, and feel a part of something larger than themselves.
Cover photo: A platoon sergeant with the 173rd Airborne Brigade guides his paratroopers as they capture a hostile airfield during an emergency deployment readiness exercise at Rivolto Air Base in Udine, Italy, Sept. 26, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Lt. Col. John Hall)