The value of ego

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Is it more important for you to be right, or to do right?

In our endeavours, do we consider the difference between what people want and what people need? Basic needs like shelter, social contact, clothing and food can be provided at relatively insignificant cost. And by using instinct and simple skills, people can survive and even thrive. In contrast to wants, the market for basic needs is small. Modern economies and political systems are geared to reinforcing people’s desires rather than their needs.

So is too much of a good thing absolutely awesome?

Not according to 16th century physician Theo von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus. Renowned for his pioneering work on toxicology, Paracelsus advanced the concept of ‘potential toxicity’, or more simply – the death is in the dose.

For example, trace amounts of arsenic are an essential dietary element, but depending on its chemical makeup, ingesting arsenic is lethal, even at milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Life-sustaining water can be deadly too. For an average adult, drinking several litres of water rapidly leads to a hyponatremia, or water intoxication which is almost always fatal.

And what about our ego – is there a toxic level?

Brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine are now understood to be part of a complex chemical and physiological system which determines mood and ego.

To succeed and excel, humans require a level of ego. It propels us to heights of achievement, risk-taking and promotes competition. But power, financial wealth and ego are interwoven. Perhaps it stems from our earliest civilisations when possessions became symbols of status and power.

Here is an edited excerpt from a recent article published on Absa’s blog, titled ‘Manage your ego to reduce your debt’:

In the past, it was rarity and exclusivity that was valued whereas modern treasures seem to be, to a large degree, coveted for their popularity… Instead of setting us apart, the majority of our daily possessions serve the purpose of making us feel that we belong. And this belonging comes at a cost… is the difference between a Huawei P8 Lite at R2 700 and a Samsung Galaxy S8 at R13 000 so significant?… 

With entry-level models averaging R130 000 and luxury vehicles reaching way past the R1 million mark… cars are the ultimate status symbol, and emotion, not logic, tends to guide our decision-making… If there is anything that could physically manifest as our ego, it would be that four-wheeled money pit in your garage.

Possessions aside, ego can also affect the health and viability of an enterprise. Leaders who exhibit egocentric behaviour can become obsessed with their decisions, often with destructive results.

Take William Orten, President of the Western Union Company. In the 1870s, Western Union had a monopoly on the telegraph, the most advanced communications technology at the time.

When Alexander Graham Bell approached Western Union to consider his novel telephone invention, Orten rejected the concept stating that it had no commercial value and suggesting it was an ‘electrical toy’. When Orten was proven wrong, instead of accepting defeat, he spent years in court challenging Bell’s patent.

Whether on a local or national level, South Africa’s narrative is riddled with egocentrics who hold society hostage to self-absorbed arrogance. An example is ex-State President Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to accept scientific consensus. He believed Aids was not a virus, but caused by poverty and poor nutrition. Mbeki’s Aids denialist policies and rejection of offers for free medication and international grants contributed to the deaths of over 300 000 people (Estimating the Lost benefits of ARV drug use in South Africa – Harvard University: 2008 Chigwedere P, Seage GR et al).  

And in 2015, Malusi Gigaba (as Minister of Home Affairs) gazetted new travel regulations requiring unabridged birth certificates for children together with onerous visa application procedures. Despite widespread calls to ease regulations, Gigaba held firm and responded to criticism with anger and righteous indignation.

Gigaba eventually conceded on some of the more arduous rules, but not before more than R15 billion of losses to the tourism industry were recorded and thousands of potential jobs were compromised.

Grahamstown’s tourism industry was not immune to the fallout. Malusi Gigaba is now South Africa’s Minister of Finance. Regrettably, most egocentric leaders are rewarded by paying no price for being wrong.

For those in positions of authority, excess ego can be toxic and damaging to greater society. We can hold this in check with humility, by understanding our human condition and natural weaknesses. One of the best ways of managing egocentricity is to accept a select number of independent advisors and mentors. They can be businesspeople, professionals, elders, religious practitioners, or even family members.

In South African enterprises, the value of impartial advisors and non-executive directors is slowly taking hold. These are trusted guides – independent people able to view things from a diverse and arms-length perspective. One cannot towel off dry whilst still in the water.

Good counsel will journey with you from ego to restraint. And a great advisor may even be able to moderate egocentricities.

The value of ego? It’s in the dose.

  • Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age 7.  He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.
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