As a kid growing up one of my favourite cartoon characters was always Donald Duck. You just know that no matter how happy he is at the beginning of the cartoon that things are going to go terribly wrong and he always ends up getting the short end of the stick…largely of his own making. One of my favourites of Donald was when he hit a moral dilemma and sure enough a little devil appears on his right shoulder encouraging him to go after what he wants regardless of the consequences. Then, of course, a little angel appears on his left pleading with him to do the right thing. Have you ever tried to make sense of that internal struggle? We all have! Now Freud had some crazy ideas but when it came to creating a metaphor for how the functional systems of the mind works the man was a genius. Of all the theories of mind put forward by psychodynamics (Freud’s theory of psychology) the relationship between the id, the superego, and the ego is one of the most enduring and important. Allow me to introduce you to that little devil on your shoulder…the id…and why leaving this little fella unchecked is bad for leadership.
According to Freud the id is the original source of drive energy. Referred to as the ‘great reservoir’ of mental energy the id is very basic in its function. Its sole purpose is to release excitation and tension. It needs to get rid of that pent up frustration so we can return to a quiet internal state…think chilled out. The id operates according to the pleasure principle and so pursues pleasure and avoids pain. It wants what it wants when it wants it! It’s the personification of the spoiled child. The id has no concept of moral value or consequences and operates entirely at the unconscious level which makes it a tricky bugger. Lastly, the id achieves its goal for immediate gratification in one of two ways; taking action or through imagination. This is a really important distinction when it comes to goal accomplishment. Research tells us that a high percentage of people may have goals but rather than taking action they imagine what it would be like to have attained the goal. This gives them enough of a sense of satisfaction to never take the steps necessary to actually achieve it!
The ego is not master in its own house ~ Sigmund Freud.
Conversely, on the other shoulder is the little angel…the superego. The superego (super in this instance means above or superior…not all powerful) represents the moral aspects of social behaviour. It contains the ideals we all strive for and keeps us aligned to those ethical standards laid down by society…and our parents. Ultimately the superego is an internal representation of the moral rules in our external social world. It controls our behaviour through emotional rewards. If our behaviour is aligned to our or society’s morals we are rewarded with positive emotions such as pride or self-love; we hear that praise that we all crave for, ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’. If we deviate from our moral code we are punished with the emotions of guilt or feelings of inferiority; guilt is a big one for the superego – our parents have trained us well! The superego operates at a relatively primitive level of the mind. It operates in line with the perfection principle and expresses itself in terms of ‘black and white’ thinking and makes ‘all or none’ judgements – there’s no room for negotiation; that’s good or that’s bad, that’s right or that’s wrong. It is incapable of reality testing and can therefore be quite inflexible in its approach to solving real world problems. Being this inflexible is also places a constraint on a leaders ability to get things done.
Lastly there’s the ego. When Freud coined the term ego he didn’t mean it to mean, ‘Look at the big ego on that guy’. The ego seeks out reality. Its function is to express and satisfy the desires of the id while balancing the demands of the superego and real world opportunities and constraints. Based on the reality principle the ego wants to maximise pleasure and minimise pain (or negative consequences) and it achieves this by blocking, diverting, or gradually releasing the energy of the id while meeting the demands of reality and the superego. It’s got a tough job! Unlike the superego and the id, the ego can compromise through rational thought, it can distinguish reality from fantasy, and it is capable of tolerating tension. Therefore to successfully navigate through the challenges life throws at us we all need a strong ego. If you’re interested in developing your ego strength here are a few things you can work on:
- Acceptance of yourself – warts and all. Know that we are all perfect in our own way and we are all on a journey.
- Train yourself to take a wider perspective on things. Examine your personal rules about the different aspects of your life such as rules about yourself, other people, relationships, fairness, life in general.
- Take back your power! Take responsibility for your thoughts, your words, and your actions. Increase your sense of efficacy in the areas of life that are important to you. Be proactive, actively practice resourcefulness, and take action!
- Develop an attitude of flexibility. Be accepting of and open to change…because everything changes! Be mindful of the meanings you attach to events and experiences; do you go negative or positive? Often times this simple change in perspective can make all the difference.
Obviously having a strong ego is very healthy and, because of the complexities that arise in life and work, having a strong ego is a necessary trait for solid leadership.
Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise ~ Sigmund Freud.
If you’d like to know more about how to develop your own personal ego strength and understand how to apply this in your life, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.