A few years ago, a client shared a book recommendation with me: “Ego is the Enemy,” by Ryan Holiday. Now, this is one of those grandiose titles that immediately makes my eyes roll. Here we have some know-it-all stating the obvious in a 250-page “business” self-help book. Let’s say that the cynic in me was hard at work. Not proud of it, but I am a Gen Xer through and through.
Recently, I have come up against some challenging situations in my practice regarding struggling family businesses and owners killing themselves to keep the ship afloat. Not every company is living in the post-pandemic days of wine and roses. A lot of them are struggling to find themselves and create an identity. The subject of ego has arisen many times, and it drove me back to this book recommendation.
So, I read it. In all fairness, I didn’t slog through all 256 pages; I am not a masochist. I visited an audio abstract of the book on a service I subscribe to. After reviewing the condensed version, I realized that much of the misalignment I saw in my client’s companies was steeped in the curse of ego. How does ego prevent us from building a successful distribution organization? Can entrepreneurs succeed without a manageable dose of ego?
To Sell or Not to Sell
Over the past few years, I have worked with a few small-business owners who found themselves at a crossroads. Should they pour enormous time and resources into an entity that might be better off sold? Is the juice worth the squeeze? First-generation founders would cringe at this notion. Hard work and dedication will always prevail. Businesses only fail when complacency and negligence enter the culture.
I’m not sure I agree. For many companies, all the elbow grease in the world isn’t going to save them. The technology arms race, the changing desires of the workforce and the challenges of global supply may be too great an obstacle to overcome.
In some instances, I have seen owners so overcome with guilt about a possible sale that they pull out of a deal, one likely to save the entity and those who depend on it for their income. The trouble is these next-generation owners have been conditioned to believe that putting the company in the hands of others constitutes a failure. That’s not leadership; it’s pure ego.
I have been asked many times what a struggling business owner should do. This can be a challenge for me, to be brutally honest. This was especially true early in my advisory career. I bought into the notion that there was always something I could do or say to bring them out of a tailspin. That was my ego wanting a certain outcome.
It wasn’t that my heart was in the wrong place; I truly wanted them to succeed. The failure was my inability to recommend what was really best for the client. In many cases, the best advice I could have given was to clean up the books and get the company on the market. Ego is a fear-driven emotion masking itself as strength.
Is it a failure to sell your family business? Yep, I went there. This is scary, and I suspect it resonates with many next-generation owners. Come on, let’s be honest. When we see a next-generation owner “sell out” to a private equity firm or another consolidator, don’t we experience some degree of negative thought? Sure, we congratulate our colleague, but we still whisper behind his back.
Maybe it’s jealousy or another character defect coming out to play. I don’t know, but I can’t deny it. Even though it is the right thing to do for the entity’s financial health, it always comes with a little tarnish. In privately held companies, and this is very true in the distribution arena, we don’t respect the passing of a business. This is ego getting the upper hand on better judgment.
You Can Learn from Failure
Stop falling in love with the desired outcome. This emotional attachment to one specific outcome makes us blind to potential solutions. When my desired outcome does not come to fruition, no matter how often I try to pound the square peg into the round hole, I become frustrated and blocked from the creative entrepreneur inside of me.
When ego-based thinking takes hold, failure is seen as the worst possible outcome. On the contrary, failure is simply a way to move on to a better path. Therefore, we must be at peace with failure.
Entrepreneurism is all about taking risks. Don’t our greatest learning moments come when we step outside of conventional thought and method? By its very nature, risk invites failure. Think about some of the brilliant ideas you or someone in your company came up with over the years. Have they all been winners?
I can think of some business directions in my career that failed miserably. At the time, I thought it was the greatest idea ever. And then I was humbled. Fortunately, I recovered, but it sure stung. I like to tell people that business failures are simply tuition. I must pay my tuition to get an education. Some lessons are more expensive, but they all involve tuition.
Abandon ego’s attachment to success. Rather than believing that the desired outcome is the only way to achieve success, take time to become a master of the process. Find satisfaction in the effort you place into the process and learn to become a student of your journey.
Fixating on the outcome will only lead to disappointment, frustration and resentment. When we become selfish and self-centered and take credit for organizational successes, ego is coming out to play. Falling into its trap will prevent you from reaching your creative potential.
Humility is the antithesis of ego. My favorite definition of humility is the ability to remain teachable. Become a student of your organizational challenges. Study how others overcome these challenges. And remember, it’s OK to ask for help. Good luck, and know that I am always here to share my experience.