Me, Myself and I – The Role of Ego in Social Entrepreneurship (Part 1)

Key Questions in this Post:

  • What is the nature of ego and how can it affect our happiness?
  • How does ego differ as a major force of motivation to “do good” from more conventional philanthropy or altruism?

In Weekly Ponder #5 I asked the question why so many changemakers seem to prefer reinventing the wheel rather than to replicate existing ideas in closer collaboration with (and knowledge of) those that came before them. I wondered why so many people feel they need to start social enterprises (just like in the world of NGOs) with their own brands, their own way of doing things, oftentimes without having researched much of what has already been done. Inevitably, the suspicion of ego as a driving force came up in some of the ensuing conversations I was part of in various online forums.

Ah, ego. I love this topic. I love to admire people who use it for productive contribution to the world. At the same time, I love to hate people who get carried away with themselves (and showing it), get in the way of others’ (more important) work and in the end, not achieving much anyway in the process. Pricks. In a way, ego is that 800 pound gorilla in the room that few people talk about when it comes to social innovation and entrepreneurs. Yet it probably has a central place at the table when especially some of the more recent social entrepreneurs with roots from the business world decide to make their mark on the world. I have not seen many studies or surveys on the role that ego plays in pushing the social sector forward… or inhibiting it from promoting the social change we supposedly all seek. So I thought I’d think about it a little here.

Today, drawing from my personal interactions with a host of do-gooders from the camps of investors, entrepreneurs and consultants, I want to first spend some time reflecting on the nature of ego itself and its contribution to our happiness. What are signs of a healthy or unhealthy ego? What’s at stake and why is this a potential hotly contested (but not openly debated) topic in social entrepreneurship?

On another day, in Part 2 of this article, I will then start thinking about the practical role that ego plays in both its positive and negative influences on the motivation and behavior of social changemakers – and try to distill what we in the Good Generation can learn from this in our own quests to make the world a better place… without being pricks.

  • First, how shall we define “ego” for this reflection? Sidestepping the rigors of psychological definitions, perhaps we could describe it as a combination of individual will, ambition and a need for control over the process, the result, and the credit for that result in any given endeavor (social entrepreneurship in this case). To be fair, ego then is just a force of our individual nature that, if mastered, can be channeled for good or, if left unchecked, a source for annoyance and strife between people.
  • In my view, the most important constructive work of ego in entrepreneurship is to be a motivating force to act. In return, entrepreneurship, as far as I can tell, is an individual act that responds to certain cravings inside of us. Cravings as simple (or superficial?) as greed and material desire but also cravings as noble as compassion, a call for extraordinary duty, or to right a terrible wrong. Ego is important in this context because it not only creates pervasive unrest in the mind, but also stirs the emotional pot by pushing our buttons in several ways, including our envy of others, feelings of boredom or inadequacy, desires to prove something, the yearning for meaning and individual expression or – in the absence of such meaning – the need to leave a legacy in light of our inevitable mortality.
  • How many of you ever thought to yourself in a private moment that you were not only born for a special purpose, but also that you were meant to change the world in pursuing this purpose? Whether you succeeded in identifying this purpose is besides the point. I would just call out that this type of feeling or yearning to be “not like the others” is one expression of ego, which can be both healthy and unhealthy depending how you manage it. The opposite of this feeling, is when you are simply content with who you are, what you have, and that you can peacefully live the rest of your life without needing anything, including leaving a legacy. Look at the monks, some of my favorite role models in ego-management. They don’t “do” or “accomplish” much in the grand scheme of things, do they? But they are happy, they are content and they have no inner unrest about their purpose and mission in the world, other than making it through their 80 something years on earth free of sins and distractions. Arguably, part of their ability to do that stems from living somewhat apart from the rest of society, which shields them from the typical urban (contagious) social disorders of envy, greed, pretentiousness and the need for social status and consumption of goods and entertainment as a proxy for material happiness (see a recent post where I actually mentioned monks as role models for sustainability). Alas, since most of us cannot or will not forsake that world anyway, all we can do is to try our hardest to manage our ego such that it can keep bringing the best out of us instead of getting in the way of our happiness.
  • Some signs of a healthy ego (on the path to humility) include:
  1. You know your worth as a human being
  2. You are confident in what you can do but you also know your bounds
  3. You are motivated by an inner force to strive towards actions that have personal meaning
  4. You seek to be different from others in a way that you would be proud of others imitating
  5. You are driven to excel in activities that improve the lives of others
  • Some signs of an unhealthy (nasty) ego include:
  1. You long for title and rank for the sake of affirming your progress in life
  2. You have a strong urge for accomplishment for the sake of recording accomplishments
  3. You desire that others know of your superiority and seek public acknowledgment for it
  4. You have boundless confidence and are convinced few people know better than you… and you have never met those people anyway
  5. You feel unworthy of others and cannot imagine who would want to be like you
  • So much for basic ego 101, I suppose. How does this become relevant now for everyone’s favorite topic of social entrepreneurship?
  • For one, it seems to me that there are two fundamental ways to think about ego in social entrepreneurship. (1) if you believe in the importance of intention and if you believe the reason to start a social enterprise is for the overriding purpose to do good onto others, you may be repelled by the idea that ego should play a big role behind someone’s motivation to engage. You may find a selfishly motivated activity to be unworthy of its stated objective a priori. (2) On the other hand, if you care mostly to judge the success or failure of any endeavor, i.e., its outcome, you may be less sensitive to the extent that an entrepreneur was driven by her ego as long as a goal, say, alleviating poverty, is reached. Why does this distinction matter?
  • In a way, as much as I hate to generalize, it helps us better understand a fundamental difference in attitudes and cultural values between do-gooders from what I will call the traditional NGO/charity worlds and those, more recently, from the business world. While the former have always operated under the explicitly stated objective to serve various socially-redeeming missions, the latter may not have had a particular “mission” as their primary motivating factor to do what they do in business. Other motivations may have included more “selfish” reasons, such as to make money, to rise in rank and recognition, and to prove their mettle in overcoming difficult challenges.
  • Therefore, I would say this distinction is very important because it does not only describe a difference in “industry” or “sector” preferences, but deeper differences in personal motivations from one individual to another. Note that I am not judging the moral worth of either type of motivation, but just want to call out that they come from very different places. Note also that when I say “business” types I don’t mean people who necessarily work in business or who have MBAs. For purpose of this article, I rather mean to describe a type of person who is driven more by – you guessed it – ego than by service to others in its purest sense. This definition would then also include people who work or have always worked in the social sector (although they would never admit to this for obvious reasons).
  • Given the relatively recent trend that people with a “business” mindset have chosen to join the social sector, which previously was predominantly the domain of the “NGO” people, it behooves us to understand that subsequent tensions and arguments sometimes result due to judgments being made about the above differences in motivation. While the M.O. of NGO types – selfless service for the mission (evidenced by the arguably relatively low salaries that they accept) – has not changed, we now have “business” types trying to also serve a mission. Just that it doesn’t always come from the same selfless core motivation as with their charity counterparts. Or at least, that is the accusation raised by NGO types.
  • So what, then? What do we care? How does this play out in real life? That is something I want to dive a little deeper into next time in Part 2 of this article.
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5 thoughts on “Me, Myself and I – The Role of Ego in Social Entrepreneurship (Part 1)

  1. Anna says:

    Ego = serving #1 and we all do it. It’s how we go about it that rubs others either positively or negatively. It’s also how we respond to that that may decide our success in anything we do.

  2. anu says:

    I have come across several individuals who claim to be big on social entrepreneurship, but on a closer look, do it merely for the fame, status, and glory. They want to be acknowledged and recognized, they live off praise, and frankly it pisses me off because they refuse to participate in projects or efforts where
    i. they don’t get paid (some NGOs give allowances, while some don’t)
    ii. they’re not the leader (they refuse to ‘follow’ because less recognition, not much publicity)
    So yes, while ego is a good motivation, it can certainly corrupt the whole spirit of social entrepreneurship when too much ego seeps in.
    Good article.

    • Hi Anu, nice passionate response! So according to the article, you fall under the camp that believes that intention is most important and that those seeking participation on the social entrepreneurship game should not be doing it for seeking praise or fame.

      I’ve witnessed similar things I suppose especially regarding those that prefer leadership to followership (like 100% of the media).

      However, I would challenge you with a question on your first point on pay. Would you say that the refusal to accept low (allowance) or no pay is a function of ego or perhaps a different mindset around compensation around “market value” of individuals who came from other sectors? Further, whether or not you agree with what that value should be, do you believe it should be disregarded when someone from say the corporate world goes into NGOs? In other words, are you a proponent of the “do good discount” on salaries?

      If so, why? Curious about your perspective as it will be a subject of a future post of mine anyhow, and would be nice to get some views ahead of time.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Vern Hughes says:

    This article promises to address an important question – the problem of hubris in the social innovation field – but falls well short in its delivery. The root of the problem is that social innovation is but one form of changemaking, alongside many others – it is not the whole of the field, nor its pinnacle. Some of the most significant changemakers are anonymous women and men who work voluntarily in nurturing relationships, inspiring individuals to step out of darkness, and seek no recognition or reward. Some social entrepreneurs and innovators are also inconspicuous like this, getting on quietly with the business of changing social relations and establishing new ways of doing things.

    But some social innovators and entrepreneurs are at the opposite end of the spectrum, noisily beating their drums, constantly proclaiming that they are changing the world, and that they deserve the financial and political support of everyone with money and favours to dispense.

    Part of this noisy self-promotion is due to the need to sell a project to funders and investors. Some of it comes from a desire to win an award or competition in social innovation, and pick up prize money from a sponsoring corporate consulting firm or bank. A large part of it comes from the need to keep chanting that we are “making a difference” and “changing the world”, in order to keep stakeholders on board and funders happy.

    The result is a prodigious output of hubris in the social innovation world. It is the ecosystem in the field that creates and reinforces this culture, and it is this system which needs to change. Here are three steps that might make a difference:

    1. A moratorium on social innovation awards, competitions, and innovation acceleration camps, so as to encourage self-assessment and reflection rather than self-promotion.

    1. A moratorium on corporate sponsorship of social innovation initiatives, pilots and roll-outs, so as to institute a pause in breast-beating.

    3. A moratorium on the development of “labs” and “collaboratories” and a re-orientation towards social innovation that arises from deep immersion in communities of intractable social problems (such communities very quickly extinguish hubris).

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