Self-interest might seem common among those with leadership or management responsibility, but it can have damaging consequences, says leading UK Chartered Psychologist Steven Sylvester.
A former professional cricketer and ex-academy footballer, Sylvester has helped leaders in business and professional sport to fulfil their potential by stimulating open and honest debate using what he calls the ‘withoutEGO philosophy’. Through his research with world champion sportsmen and women, Sylvester has found that when people are driven by self-interest or ego it can increase their levels of fear, defensiveness and self-absorption.
“Ego gets in the way of good decision making and the ability to work well with teams and prevents people from performing well under pressure,” he says. “In contrast, when people perform in a selfless way and without fear, like world champions do, it can lead to an increase in openness and an ability to express their skills freely. They tend to be more inspirational and selfless and build more innovative and collaborative teams.”
WithoutEGO is a set of attitudes, behaviours, values and beliefs that enables a person to see how their ego is negatively impacting on players and the team. Each individual or team is invited to explore and assess where they sit on a continuum with selfishness at one end and selflessness at the other end. “For football managers this is difficult as the win-at-all-costs culture pushes players and managers to avoid uncomfortable truths. I will ask them in-depth questions, collect data and assess how they operate against the philosophy, which provides an insight into the club’s level of fear, defensiveness and self-absorption,” he says. “We can also see where inconsistencies lie between their values and beliefs and their actual attitudes and behaviours.
“This is a rigorous and relentless process,” he adds, “enabling the manager to build his or her self regard by understanding their blind spots in the same way an elite athlete would when striving to be the best in the world.” Although much of his work is confidential, Alex Rae, now assistant manager to Alex McLeish at Belgian club Genk, is happy to speak of his experience.
“Even though Rae played won many trophies over his career, his obsession with winning often sent him over the edge and led to reckless challenges and physical altercations,” says Sylvester. “But his openness to pressing the pause button and reflecting over where his inner rage came from is a great strength. Once he was able to talk it through with me and became aware of the deep-seated need that drove his anger and need to win, he was in a better position to make the necessary self-correction. He has progressed from being labelled a bad boy to potentially an inspirational leader with a greater purpose beyond himself.”
Managers in football and business should stop, look and listen to how they are building their personal brands with all vested parties, says Sylvester. “They will need to carefully understand and manage their emotional world if they are going to sustain success over many years.”