Taming the ego

Knowing when our ego is getting in the way of our leadership

I’m tightly gripping my handlebars. My breath is laboured and I’m desperately watching the back wheel of the bicycle in front of me.

Then without any warning the wheel surges ahead. I let out a groan. There’s a steep hill ahead and I know my friend is going to ‘attack’ the 12% gradient.

I get out of my saddle and push hard through my pedals to bridge the gap that has suddenly appeared between us. But I have nothing left to give.

It has been a game of cat and mouse all morning, with my friend Felix constantly surging ahead and me repeatedly bridging the gap. He has done more riding than me through the winter and I think he’s enjoying the physical advantage.

However the push up Sawyers Hill is one surge too many and I finally snap. In the world of cycling it’s called bonking. The sensation is like someone pulling you backwards. Small hills suddenly feel impossible and other cyclists effortlessly glide past you. I cut my bike ride short and wait for Felix at Roehampton Gate.

Racing the Transcontinental

We’re in Richmond Park and it’s one of our first training rides for the Transcontinental — a self supported bicycle race this Summer from Flanders in Belgium to the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.

We are preparing to cycle 2,400 miles together in the pairs category over two and a half weeks. It means we need to cover approximately 130 to 140 miles each day through the heat of the European summer.

I don’t know how we’re going to achieve this — it’s very possible we won’t achieve it. But I do know this style of riding doesn’t help because I would have done a longer ride if I hadn’t bonked.

Of course it’s not all negative. Felix pushed me, and getting out of the comfort zone is needed to get better.

The ego

However there is something else at play here — the ego. It’s something I frequently experience in cycling culture; that urge to beat the next person to the top of the hill. There is nothing wrong with that, but you have to question it when it undermines the overall objective.

In our case, the objective is the ability to cycle 12 to 14 hours for eighteen days in a row. Trying to out sprint each other moves us away from achieving our objective.

Metaphor for organisational life

For me cycling is a metaphor for organisational life because most of us work in cultures where competition and egos can get in the way of our team and business objectives.

I am going to use my preparation and the race itself as a platform to experiment with this concept and develop questions and insights that can be applied back into business.

Taming the ego

So here is my first question on the ego:

Can leaders develop the self awareness to know when their ego is getting in the way? The ego can give us the drive to push us forward and make us better. But a strength can also be a weakness. If we can notice when our ego becomes a limitation in our work, what more can we achieve?

Just as importantly, can we notice when the ego of other people is a limiting factor and do we have the courage to call it out? You can do this in two ways — one approach is to shame that person and the other way is to confront them with compassion. The latter approach produces a very different outcome because you will make them feel safe enough to make a change.

I will be exploring these same questions in the weeks ahead, starting with my bike and the next steep hill!


Rowan Gray is the founder of Made to Move and a qualified executive coach who supports corporations to improve their performance, better understand team relationships and build resilience at the board level. He also work with high growth enterprises coaching them to move towards their vision and goals.