Leadership Skills #8: Great Leaders Check Their Ego at the Door

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Most companies are run by CEOs who can best be described as the alpha male or alpha female of the organization – they are smart, demanding, not averse to risk-taking, and have little patience for talking about people and their feelings. They’re tough, and that’s how they’ve gotten themselves—and their companies—to the positions they’re in today.

Egos Running Out of Control

What is the downside to this intense tenacity? These in-charge men and women often have trouble listening, being patient, and admitting they need to work on leadership development. Moreover, when presented with the value of enhancing leadership qualities, they sometimes will not even consider it!

If what they’re doing isn’t broken, then why try to fix it? Great leaders don’t have this belief – they know that overusing their ego will only lead to counterproductive results.

People who can be described as “alphas” within their professional environments are rough around the edges, “brash,” “bold,” and “demanding.” They’re not big on people skills and are more likely to bark at you than to solicit your opinion on the best course of action. If you work for an alpha-type who exhibits these qualities—you are probably familiar with phrases or body language that conveys:

  • “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • “I don’t need to adjust to people—they need to adjust to me.”
  • “If they don’t want to work for me, I’ll find someone who does.”
  • “No one else ‘gets it’ as quickly as I do.”

Intentional or not, the only thing this gets across to others, in this case, is that the alpha person has a very unhealthy ego. Great leaders don’t fall into this trap. They know ego is important to building self-confidence and technical expertise, but it does not belong as a leadership tool when interacting with people.

Missed Opportunities

Alpha men or women miss the opportunity to become great leaders. Instead of connecting with people, they are masters of sarcasm and arguing and use their body language to communicate quite clearly how little time they have. Alphas are so wrapped up in their own egos that they are practically incapable of having a conversation that does not revolve around the words “I” and “me.”

It’s not uncommon to have several alphas in a workplace who come across this way and who continue to act unchecked for the majority of their tenure with the company.


The reason for this is simple: they’re so overbearing that most people fear talking to them, much less have the guts to tell them outright that they’re being inappropriate, egotistical, and downright alienating to those who work for them.

So the alpha person simply goes on, in the same way, day after day, unaware of how they are being perceived and running over those they should be supporting, inspiring, and encouraging. In the long run, this leads to a myriad of destructive behaviors.

Destructive Behaviors from Dealing with Alphas

  • Feeling discouraged. With so much negativity in the air, it’s no wonder that people working around an alpha-type person will give up on trying to do their best. This happens in families too!
  • Reverting to individual agendas. When the people in charge are not fostering an all-for-one culture, team members are likely to feel as though they have to watch their own backs—no one is looking out for them, so they just have to look out for themselves.
  • Passing around negativity. Bad feelings are like the flu. Once one person brings the bug into the environment, it’s a sure bet that ten other people will be down with the ailment by the end of the week.
  • Opposing recommendations. The fact of the matter is that an alpha manager is still a manager, and what she says still goes. However, when she treats her employees with disdain, they will return the favor by not completing the best work that needs to get done.
  • Building walls. Over time, all of these factors will create a long, high, and practically unscalable wall between team members and the alpha person—and even between team members themselves.

Tips for Working with Alpha-Types

We all want—and need—to feel good about our roles in life and to feel pride in what we do. This is an aspect of our ego, the thing inside us that not only tells us how good we are but that craves approval, that wants to do a good job so that we can hear those notes of praise in the voices of those around us.


There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a natural human instinct to want others to accept us and like what we do. Great leaders constantly work on balancing or adjusting their egos to the appropriate level.

Here are 3 tips from leaders I know that do a great job of checking their ego at the door:

  1. You do not need to be the know-it-all. Listen to what others have to say. Put aside your own ego by avoiding telling others what to do. Let others be heard and give them opportunities to provide input.
  2. You do not need to react to alpha behaviors. Intense people tell you that what you’re telling them is preposterous or give you ten different reasons why your idea—and the system itself—won’t work. Don’t shut down because of such comments; they are just venting, and you can politely and confidently continue on with your message, keeping the end result in mind. Giving in to what alpha people want—an argument, a chance to show you that they are right and you are wrong—will do nothing but derail your good intentions.
  3. You do not need to try to change other people’s minds or behaviors. Steer clear of trying to do this simply because it is not possible. When meeting with the alpha people in your organization to discuss ideas and recommendations, spend your time and effort on getting your points across and presenting your ideas in the most positive and intriguing light possible.

You might not be able to influence their opinions right away, but if you keep your ego in check, you will be able to get them interested—and that is certainly a good first step toward getting things done.

How Does a Leader Keep Their Ego in Check?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • For too many years I worked for a company because I loved my job, clients and many of my colleagues. I admit I am intensely driven, and was always a top performer, so you might ask, what could possibly be the problem? This CEO’s ego with all of the negative characteristics you’ve outlined drove the best of us away once we’d reached our limits. I learned from that multi-year experience that if I could succeed in an environment filled with leader politics, personal agendas and being wrong no matter what….I could REALLY be fulfilled in an organization without these things at play. And so, this is what eventually came to pass…..

    drove many of us

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Annie, thanks so much for communicating your experience and letting our readers know the impact an alpha CEO has on an organization’s team members. I applaud you for moving on to a positive culture where you can flourish and make even more of a difference.

  • I worked with a manager that was I believe the most egotistical man alive. the environment was always confrontational and his attitude towards our efforts were strictly to accommodate his personal agenda, o to stroke his ego. His leadership skills were minimal and in order to keep the program moving forward much effort went into keeping him from making mistakes. as a result moral was low and the health of staff members suffered due to stress. In addition we were always at risk of shutting down directly because of choices he would make. He has been “retired” now for three years and the change in the program is substantial. we now work with the organisation towards common goals and this has led to a significant increases of our output. In this difficult financial climate I am sure we would not have survived had he stayed on board.

  • Anne Egros says:

    The great leaders have high emotional intelligence and have self-confidence without big ego. Those who think they are great leaders and manage by fear lack people skills and unfortunately cannot be “re-programmed” in most cases.

  • I venture to say that the word “leader” simply does not pertain to this type of ego driven supervisor (manager). They can drive an organization but they are missing the true mark which is elevating those around them to reach their potential. So often people in positions of authority focus on the company or organization and don’t see the human aspect to everything that they touch. We are all people working with people to provide for people. Respect, decency, kindness, and empathy do have a place in business.

  • Heath, Anne, and Greg – thanks for your comments on alpha-type people. Anne mentions that people with big egos “cannot be re-programmed”. I would be interested in hearing from you and others if you have witnessed an alpha-type tone down their ego and become an effective leader. Let me know.

  • Tim Cummuta says:


    I remember sitting in an executive meeting once where they executive team was considering a partnership with another company. Most of the executives were obviously concerned by the undertaking, some to the extent that they were openly against it. After the meeting went on for more than an hour, the president tired of everyone downgrading his idea responded. “I will make the big decisions here. You just concentrate on your jobs getting done right.”

    Of course that was the end of the story until the decision ended up in court in a lawsuit with this other company costing tens of thousands of dollars. When asked later about the decision the president stated his team had made that decision and not him. Great leadership?

  • avantika jaiaswal says:

    we have a new ceo who is cool and has all the good qualities of a true leader. He is patient ,firm and knows how to motivate and get the work done. Here the problem lies with a manager working under him who is not ready to accept anyone overpowering him.he shows the traits of alpha types ,is hyper ,aggressive and challenges people here and there.He does not listen and can neither take orders.usually gets his team to cut off from the cimmunication to all other in the system. He has become a power freak.and is major ego centric.How can such people be handled . what shall be the right approach to take care of this guy;should he be taken head on or should be given cold shoulder.

  • Katherine Conner says:

    I was manipulated by my current supervisor who has a destructive ego. I worked in another division when I got sucked into his BS. I fell for it. Some how I let this guy get into my head and I really believed him and his team were a lot more valuable than they are. He is destroying our organization by pretending to do real work. It took me two years to realize all of his lies and manipulation He has even tricked leadership into growing his pointless division of fraud waste and abuse from 6 people to 55 people! Everyone outside of the division knows and I’m the only inside who admits to knowing. Everyone else are external hires and think he is great. I told leadership about all this. They know. I’m waiting for a reorganization to take place to fix this mess. I don’t know if I should be mad at this guy or feel sorry for him. I’m trying to play the game to keep things normal while leadership figures something out. He has been smoke and mirrors the entire time. I don’t understand how or why people are like this. ‘Its easier just to be honest and humble

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