Who Is Your Counter Ego

Who is in your life to act as your counter ego? The person that has the courage, care, and wisdom to stand up to you and tell you the inconvenient truths while risking your ire? He or she must be someone who is grounded and at peace with who they are and what they stand for. They should know you, really know you, and check your B.S. meter with care while not folding their hand.

A partial list of leaders who lost their ways include:

  • Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, Enron. They represented the key forces that led to the corruption and downfall of Enron.
  • Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress (ANC) had to disenfranchise her after discovering that she had founded a soccer club in 1986 for unemployed young men, really to cater to her own needs. The club evolved over the next three years into a heavy-handed mafia gang who had committed murder, some under her direction.
  • Rajat Gupta, McKinsey and Company. Ex-chairman and convicted of insider trading.
  • Mark Hurd, ex CEO of Hewlett Packard. Resigned from HP after an investigation showed he violated HP Code of Conduct as it related to expense account submission.
  • Ferdinand Piëch, the immensely powerful former chief of Volkswagen’s supervisory board. Known as a prime architect of the culture that resulted in the emission testing scandal for VW.

Many of these leaders had a strong vision and were in pursuit of achieving lofty and beneficial goals for themselves and others.  However, over time they lost their connection with those who they served and advised.  They violated a sacred trust that is bestowed on the leader by their followers or constituencies.  The basis of this trust is the idea that the leaders second their egos to that which benefits the larger organizations they lead.  But were they always that way?  In some cases yes and often the answer is no. More typically, these leaders demonstrated in other parts of their lives an ability to be outstanding individuals who were indeed devoted to amazing causes and who gave of themselves willingly, tirelessly, and unselfishly.

Winnie Mandela stood by the cause for years.  She supported her husband Nelson Mandela over 27 years of incarceration, tolerated years of disrespect and emotional and psychological torture, and carried on the fight that Nelson was waging from inside his prison cell.

Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was profiled in Clayton Christensen’s book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” as an outstanding individual who was in service of others while attending Harvard University.

Bill Gates, who had worked with Mr. Gupta when Mr. Gupta was chair of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, wrote that he wanted to help “round out Rajat’s profile as you consider the appropriate sentence for him. Many millions of people are leading better lives – or are alive at all – thanks to the efforts he so ably supported.  Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his letter, said: “I urge you to recognize Rajat for the good he has done in the world, to give him the credit that he deserves for helping others and to take into account his efforts to improve the lives of millions of people.”

The reasons these leaders lose their guiding lights are varied. However, I have noted one common theme in my work with executives. Those who lose their way usually lack someone who acts as their moral compass and who has established enough goodwill and credibility to literally drag them back to places and times in their lives when they served a greater good. To a time when they personified values of integrity, care, hard work, and service. Someone who reminds them of their roots and the reasons that their family or childhood friends committed their hearts and trust to them. These courageous supporters can see the bigger self in the leader and challenge the leader to play at the higher level.  To not let temporary lust for power, control, physical satisfaction, and self-love destroy their lives and those of so many others they touch. These counter ego figures understand the sacredness of this bond and will not allow their own personal self-interest interfere with the objectivity and care that is required.

In one recent case, a childhood friend of a powerful CEO convinced him to accompany him for a reunion visit with their childhood friends. During the visit, they often talked about what it was that brought them together and the joy and positivity that their friendships and the values of their hometown and families. Hard work, fairness, community, care, resilience, and achievement in the service of others. Upon his return, I noticed a shift in his pace, thoughts, and behaviors. He seemed more reflective. His thrust for business and personal financial success now seemed more tempered with the kind of legacy he wished to leave behind for his organization and family. He made more attempts to connect personally with others at work. Upon further probing, it became obvious that being in the company of his childhood friends and bearing witness to the places and people that reminded him of his core values. This created shifts and insights in him which made him more ready and available to work diligently on his leadership development at work and at home. He is now regularly seeking and acting on feedback he receives from his organization. He has started a “mentor up” process that has colleagues further down the organization mentor him and his leadership team on their leadership effectiveness.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • Who do you have in your life that can play the role of your counter ego?
  • How do you treat them? Do you listen and take account or are you dismissive?
  • With whom can you play the role of their trusted counter ego?
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One Response to Who Is Your Counter Ego

  1. Kathi Love says:

    What an thought-provoking essay! When I was the head of a company, my internal counter ego role was shared by two men: the CFO and the CRO. I wrote an essay about the Chief Research Officer telling me he didn’t think I was doing a very good job that woke me up, to say the least, and I will always be grateful his bravery. Thank you for writing this.

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