Ego vs eco vs intuitive: What’s your blend of leadership?

Faced with global challenges ranging from climate change to geopolitical upheaval, business leaders today crave navigational tools which will help their organizations survive turmoil and maintain stability and growth. Our research suggests this can be achieved through the right blend of ego, eco and intuitive leadership.

All leaders can develop these three sets of capabilities and apply them in different combinations to fit the needs and demands of different organizational contexts and cultures. The ego/eco/intuitive framework provides business leaders with a way to help their organizations motivate people, promote innovation and navigate a volatile and complex world.

“Complexity is no longer just a human issue,” notes our research paper “Ego, Eco and Intuitive leadership... a new logic for disruptive times” – “technological disruption and the interface between human and digital systems has elevated the need for rethinking leadership development to a more systemic level.” In today’s new digital workplace, co-workers might never actually meet, employees of different organizations might collaborate on common pursuits and people might regularly interact with smart machines.

In such a business environment, “yesterday’s logic”, which includes the classical view of an organization as a well-oiled machine managed via a top-down hierarchy, is profoundly outdated. Instead, complexity theory suggests today’s business challenges are better confronted through a combination of ego, eco and intuitive leadership.

Ego describes leadership guided by “one’s sense of unique identity”. It involves the establishment of clear boundaries between “my team”, “my organization” and “my culture” on the inside and others on the outside. This type of leadership provides a sense of safety through identity, creates focus and promotes the ability to shape ideas and make things happen.

Eco leadership, meanwhile, views organizations as ecosystems composed of networks rather than closed systems, and enables teams to self-organize and self-manage: “While ego leadership creates and works within boundaries, eco leadership works between boundaries, creating the space for new ideas to emerge.”

Finally, an intuitive approach goes beyond rational and experience-based leadership to one that is guided by flashes of insight, gut reactions or “eureka” moments. Cholle (2011) noted that neuroscience research has found that instinct, nonconscious thought and imaginative play are vital in problem solving, adding that such discoveries “open up unprecedented opportunities for progress, creativity, and efficiency, if we only embrace the instinctual and unconscious aspects of the mind and the randomness and chaos of life”.

Our new model of leadership also seeks to understand what drives and motivates ego, eco and intuitive behaviors. Dilts (2014) suggests a hierarchical framework that consists of (from lowest level to highest) identity, beliefs/values, competencies, behavior and environment; changes at each level precipitate further changes on the levels above. This framework enables us to better understand ego/eco/intuitive behaviors by exploring data related to underlying identity, beliefs/values and competencies.

To test this model, our research – which involved interviews with senior leaders and multi-level team members at three different organizations – sought to explore how business leaders have dealt with complex challenges, what impacts those actions had, and what those leaders value and believe. Our findings helped identify the varying “gifts” and “shadows” of ego, eco and intuitive leadership, the importance of a blend of leadership approaches, and ways to develop such leadership abilities.

For example, ego leaders are effective at creating focus, setting goals and providing order and stability, but they can become stuck in their need for status and recognition and appear to others as narcissistic or egocentric.

Eco leaders thrive in disruptive times by knowing how to demonstrate curiosity, leverage interdependencies and reconcile diverse ideas. Yet they can create uncertainty for stakeholders if they do not communicate a clear organizational purpose.

Meanwhile, organizations can find intuitive leaders to be inspiring and motivational, but can lose confidence when such leadership can’t defend its decisions with solid facts and figures.

We conclude that the most effective leadership comes from a healthy blend of ego, eco and intuitive capabilities, whether from a single leader or – more likely – through a combination of leaders in a shared or distributed leadership team. Much like the three primary colors of the spectrum – red, green and blue – blend to create a pure white light, so too do ego, eco and intuitive behaviors combine to create an ideal and balanced form of leadership.

Our interviews identified a number of ways in which organizations can help leaders to develop each of these leadership styles. For instance, to build ego capabilities, encourage leaders to take stands, speak with confidence, establish clear plans for the future and back up their assertions with facts and knowledge. Developing eco leaders requires promoting open-mindedness, creating a culture of trust, providing space for social engagement and dialogue, and managing with a focus on the “what” rather than the “how”. And to develop intuitive leaders, encourage mindfulness and contemplation, promote question-asking and out-of-the-box thinking, and be ready to fail fast and learn quickly.

As Drucker wrote in 2004, “Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All they have in common is that they get the right things done. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.”

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