Just how much ego do you need in business? Do you need a sense of self the size of a small planet in order to succeed as a business leader, or is there some room for humility too?

I think Rudyard Kipling said it best in his popular and inspirational poem If

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too; 

The most successful business leaders are open to input and criticism, but they also have a rock-solid sense of themselves. They can stick to their guns when everyone else has a different view, they aren’t easily swayed by popular opinion or feeling. But they’re also not so crazy that they don’t stop to check themselves when they’re going in one direction and everyone else is going the other way.

In most cases, for most people, it’s far easier not to pull too hard against the trend. It is far easier to give in and assume that the crowd must be right and go along with it. No-one ever copped the blame individually for being wrong in a crowd.

But the truly exceptional leaders, having taken others’ doubt into account, can continue in their own direction when they know they’re right. Sometimes they fail spectacularly, some you never hear about, but it is this leadership that is the source of true innovation and major progress.

Good ego vs bad

But there is another factor that also separates the good ego from the bad.

Many successful leaders have an enormous sense of themselves, and they view the businesses they work for as an extension of themselves and of their career. They strive to make themselves great, and often the business they run will succeed at the same time, though this is usually their secondary goal. And it tends not to last once they have moved on.

Truly exceptional leaders can divert their ego into the business itself. Their primary goal is actually the success of the business, and should they personally succeed as well, that is an almost unintended consequence.

It is these leaders that build the business that truly stand the test of time.

So you need a resolute sense of self in business, to withstand the slings and arrows you will face along the way. But it must be tempered with an ability to be self-critical, and to put the business first.