Fight or flight is the classic way to categorize responses to insecurities. Sometimes fight is the wise response, or sometimes flight.  However, the most common ways people respond to their insecurities are neither fight nor flight. The most common ways, and sometimes wisest, are hide.

There are many ways to hide. You can hide like a mole, burrowing ever farther.  You can hide like a viper, striking out if threatened.  You can hide like a chameleon, blending in and observing what is happening around you.  Any of those can sometimes be wise.

Ego is among the hiding tools. One of the most harmful things we teach children is that ego is the same thing as confidence, or that ego is the same thing as pride.  It is neither, not even close. Ego is simply a façade or camouflage we use to hide our insecurities so they cannot be seen. Ego is faux confidence.

Ego, like insecurity (Insecurity, those d____ Monkeys), is helpful and even necessary when used wisely. It is not safe to go through the world with your insecurities sitting on your shoulder for everyone and everything to see.  A few times when I was young I backed down charging dogs by acting like I was not afraid of them.  (It was definitely just a façade.)  Luckily, those dogs were also just pretending to be tough, and they backed down.  Humans are not the only animals who use ego.  Bravado is common in many species.

In many situations it is wise to appear confident, even if you are struggling to keep your insecurities in check. Sometimes for other peoples’ wellbeing, you need to exude confidence even when you don’t feel any.  Leaders in a military operation, a struggling business, or a grieving family may need to show confidence for the sake of the team.  Ego is that façade of confidence.

When I was backing down those dogs, I was totally aware my ego was a façade. You have probably been in situations when you were aware your ego was a façade, maybe in a job interview, trying to impress a date, or when you needed to be confident or brave for someone else’s sake. When we are in control of it and use it effectively, ego can help us be successful at life.

But ego can also be very harmful when it controls us.

We let ego control us when we use it to hide our insecurities from ourselves.  It is very difficult to control your insecurities when you convince yourself you do not have insecurities.  It is very difficult to control your ego when it is hiding your insecurities from you.

One of our greatest fears can be that other people might discover who we really are, rather than who we imagine they think we are. But there can be an even greater fear — the fear that we may be forced to face who we really are.  That can be much more frightening than just a charging dog.

Out of control egos can be very desperate, very intimidating, and sometimes very dangerous. An extreme example of how dangerous is Adolph Hitler–huge insecurities hidden behind a huge ego that he touted as pride.  Out of control egos were responsible for many of the most reprehensible acts in human history.  Bullying and Organizations focuses on this.

You can easily distinguish between confidence and ego–in someone else. Tease someone who is confident. A confident person has no reason to immediately become defensive. They often react by making greater fun of themselves.  But tease someone with an out of control ego.  From experience you probably already know better.  They can become defensive in an instant.  That is not confidence.  It is urgency to protect the insecurities hidden by the ego.

I discusseded Tony Gwinn in Confidence and Being Real, who asked his wife to video record his games so that he could find weaknesses in his batting and went on to become one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. When opponents found ways to counter Michael Jordan’s strengths, he identified areas where he was weak to expand his game.  Those with out of control egos hide behind the illusion that they do not have weaknesses to find, that they are already good enough.  I know Michael Jordan has an ego, no doubt a strong one.  But he did not use his ego to hide his weaknesses from himself. The most successful competitors universally seek out their weaknesses and attack them rather than hide from them.

Organizations (Organizations and Success) are only extensions of human beings. Whether a family or a multinational corporation, organizations have the same tendencies and traits human beings have. At one point General Motors (GM) sold one of every two cars sold in the world.  Its share had declined from 50% of the entire world market to only about 20%, and it was headed to bankruptcy.  Ross Perot famously warned the other members of the GM board of directors that the company had to get over its illusions and face the reality of its situation.  He was forced off the board.  Even as it neared death, GM’s out of control corporate ego refused to give up its illusions.   Arguably the most dominant corporation in history had to be rescued by a government takeover (not bailout, takeover).  The government had to make basic management decisions to save GM because its ego would not allow it to face reality.  Imagine who those members of the GM board of directors and its top level managers were–among the most powerful and respected business people in the world. Anyone can behave like a spoiled child when controlled by her/his ego.

At the same time Toyota had located pull cords throughout every factory that any employee could pull if she/he sensed a problem and potentially stop the assembly line. Its focus was on identifying problems.  Toyota’s quality did slip as it neared overtaking GM as the largest auto maker in the world.  Its CEO publicly admitted that its rapid growth had taxed its production system.  He said that problems that are out in the open can be solved, and he said it was his job to uncover problems.

In my experience too many leaders believe their job is not to uncover problems, but to cover them up so nobody will find them. I have been told multiple times (as the corporate risk manager) that whether there was unethical or illegal activities occurring in a department was not my business.  In most of those cases down the road the department had to deal with one or more scandals that went public.

Ego when used effectively can be valuable in achieving success. But it is difficult or impossible for an out of control ego to continue to succeed over time because it handicaps the ability to grow and improve.  Generally out of control egos follow the same path as GM, existing in an illusion of success until a failure occurs that is catastrophic enough to destroy the illusion.  You may be able to think of a number of public figures whose out of control egos led them to shame or even prison.

I should confess (knowing my wife and kids will point it out if I do not) there have been instances when I have been the one who let my ego control me. As I have mentioned, I am still growing up.