(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: Before you became a business and corporate consultant, you mentioned you left or lost a job because you didn’t know how to, in your words, “cater to the owner’s ego.” Can you recall that experience?

JM: I was working for a paper company called Hubbs and Howe selling paper goods for motels—paper shoes for the shower and paper towels. One day, after about six or seven months, the owner of the business sat down at my desk and said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” And I said, “Yeah. I mapped out a good plan and sales are getting better.” And he said, “Yeah, but you’re ignoring the manager of the plant.” And I said, “I think I’m friendly.” And then he got real mean and nasty, said all sorts of things and ended it with, “You just aren’t doing your job.” I was totally baffled. So I sat down with my secretary—in those days, you had a secretary that did all the typing—and I asked her, “What the hell’s going on?” She said, “What you should have been doing is going down every few weeks, sitting down with him, and telling him you need help so he could feel good. I would also talk to his secretary. She knows everything that is going on.” So I went and talked to his secretary and she basically said the same thing. She said, “Here’s what you did: you were not pampering him, you were not catering to him, and he has a big ego.” And I said, “I don’t know what an ego is.” And she said, “Well, you better learn, otherwise you’re not going last.” And I said, “Well, from what you tell me, I’m not sure if I want to.” She asked me, “Do you want an appointment with the owner?” I said, “Sure.” So I met with him, and I can’t remember the details, I just remember that he got real nasty with me again. He criticized me in all kinds of ways. I said, “Bill,” or whatever his name was, “this isn’t the place for me. I’m resigning.” And he said to me literally, “Good. Here’s a cigar. Good-bye.”

BW: You have so much experience in business. Is ego often a problem?

JM: I could say that in many situations the major problem is big egos. Executives and the department heads, in the past, these were usually men. And I’ve found that men, and I’m generalizing of course, have big egos and they were always competitive.

BW: In fairness, I think women struggle with the same thing, maybe not as overtly since it’s perceived as unfeminine. I’ve known women with big egos. I also think we need to define ego since it is an overused and loaded word. For the purpose of our discussion here, we could maybe say that it is an inflated sense of self rooted in pride and an inflated sense of entitlement.

JM: That’s a good definition for our discussion.

BW: In your experience, is that an all too common problem—having to “cater to someone’s ego” as an unwritten job requirement? You never see that in a job description, but maybe you should.

JM: To be very generous, I would say it’s a very common need on the part of not just the president, but people in general, to be communicated with on a regular basis. And so, in many cases, it wasn’t a matter of stroking their ego, as much as communicating frequently so that they would feel that they were connected. And that would give them a feeling of being in power, which is of course, what their ego wants. So it’s complicated. To better clarify the issue—it’s a big, important area of how people relate and communicate. In relating to, we’ll say the top management people, it’s not just a matter of ego. They have a genuine need to be communicated with frequently and ask for opinions and reporting of what you’re doing, and so fundamentally it’s a matter of good communications and good relationships. And that’s a basic need in every organization. But going back to ego, it is pervasive and can be a huge problem.

BW: There’s a common belief—that you need a big ego to accomplish things or to run an organization. People with large egos often argue that is the case. We often make excuses for people with big egos, like—look at all they do, look at all the people they employ, etc. You have extensive experience in the business world and you also have experience in the military. Is that really true? Is a big ego necessary?

JM: From my viewpoint, no. It actually gets in your way. It makes me think of a simple example of a company president who dealt with two executives who were constantly fighting. Those men had big egos. They felt that they were absolutely right, that the other person was wrong, that the president should do something about it, so their egos were preventing them from working as a team. This constant one-upmanship between the two executives generated a lot of strife in the environment. And honestly, nothing was really gained in the long run for all of this. And so my basic belief is that having a big ego is very destructive.

BW: What about the argument that you need a big ego to be successful?

JM: People with big egos may or may not be successful. There are actually many factors that determine success. Regardless, whether there’s success or no success, over the long term, ego tends to have destructive tendencies, especially in the area of relationships. And there is also the tendency to self-destruct, as in the old proverb, “Pride comes before a fall.”

BW: You mentioned in another topic that many are blocked by fear. Are ego and fear connected? I am wondering if behind ego is a lot of fear, a fear of failure.

JM: And the answer is yes. If you begin to look at the underlying feelings that have a lot to do with ego and other things, one of the most powerful emotions is fear—the fear of failure, the fear of appearing stupid, the fear of not satisfying your boss, a whole range of fears. And also, frequently, deep down underneath there would be strong feelings of, “Am I good enough?” And the media we’re surrounded with doesn’t help. If you go in some place and look at the magazines, look at a bunch of them, you’ll find that almost every one of the magazines causes the reader to think they are inadequate. That if you are going to be popular, you’ve got to be dressing this way, you’ve got to be slender, you’ve got to be beautiful. The media, which is now run by huge corporations, is designed to make people feel inadequate and fearful. So they buy. And this shows up in the organization. So this is a vast area.

BW: So sometimes, when someone had a large ego, underneath it, there was a lot of fear?

JM: Yes, but it took quite a while to find out, or to relate to him over enough weeks and months to where I could help him get in touch with his fears because ego prevents him from feeling and seeing the fear. Many people will not admit that they have a big ego. They don’t want to. So you have to judge this by their behavior. The way they talk, the way they treat people, the way they communicate. Like I’m thinking right now of a client I worked with for years, that had six executives reporting to the president. Five of them were people that were really oriented on doing good work, putting in a day’s work for a day’s pay, as they call it. They cared about their employees, but there was one person who had a high need for emotional control. He had a high need to dominate his people. Well to find out whether that’s ego or something else is very difficult. These words like ego and fear are abstractions. It could be fear. It could simply be just plain old pride, hubris, arrogance. You can overanalyze it. In this particular case, it was a combination of fear and arrogance along with a few other things too much to go into here. And this took quite a bit of time to figure out. It required a relationship of trust. But again, to reiterate, it is a huge challenge to deal with ego on an interpersonal level and it tends to have very destructive tendencies regardless of what is exactly underneath it. And people with big egos tend not to want to give them up. Many never do.

BW: Going back to the discussion on the need for ego. To clarify, are you saying that you don’t need an ego to accomplish things?

JM: We need an ego, not in the sense of an inflated self, but more in the sense of self-esteem. And this needs to be in balance with everything else. There’s such a thing as healthy ego versus unhealthy ego. If I was studying something because I wanted to become an outstanding consultant, that’s my ego—in the sense of excess pride—at work. But if I was studying something because I wanted to learn about human nature, learn how to help my clients, learn about human problems, then I can be very humble and learn. I don’t need a big ego to do that. Unfortunately, our educational system generally conditions us in the opposite way. It conditions us to want to be the star of the class, so to speak. To want to be above everyone, outdo everyone, be better than everyone, rather than work in a team with others or have a sense of service.