The secret to overcoming ego in leadership

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What makes a leader?

It’s not simply taking charge or making decisions—though that can often be how leadership presents. These characteristics, when used wisely, enable leaders to be decisive, action-oriented, and persistent. However, when bumping up against the culture of niceness in our social sectors, leaders who challenge themselves and others may be pegged as egoistic.

Spoiler alert: we’re all egoistic.

Awe and overcoming egoism

But there is a way to balance ego, and it’s surprisingly simple: awe.

Awe is the feeling of wonder and curiosity that we experience when we encounter something new, beautiful, or inspiring. Awe can help us see beyond ourselves, connect with others, and appreciate the bigger picture.

That’s the message of Dacher Keltner’s new book, AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. He demonstrates how awe can improve our happiness, health, and work. If you’re looking for a book that will inspire and challenge you, this is it.

Keltner reminds us that Lee Ross’s a-ha of the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is often at the root of misunderstanding. This is our natural tendency to attribute others’ actions to their personality or their character (ego), while attributing our own behavior to external factors outside our control. In other words, we tend to cut ourselves some slack while holding others accountable for their actions.

Patrick Healy’s 2017 Harvard Business School article explains the core elements of FAE and offers tips for avoiding unproductive or unfair judgments of others.

Decision-making, ego, and leading through change

Today, I want to focus on a specific leadership domain: Decision-making and practices that can be strengthened to focus on important outcomes. These practices can also help lead through uncertainty and change—particularly in the nonprofit sector, where decision-making is legislative and diffuse, and unilateral decisions can often cause leaders to gain short-term control but lose long-term influence. So what to do about it?

  1. Determine whether the decision is analytical or intuitive. Often we jump over this important step and leap right to action.

    1. Watch out for treating an intuitive problem as analytic by oversimplifying and trying to reduce it to its technical components.

    2. Watch out for treating an analytical problem as an intuitive problem by “my gut says” to justify an uninformed decision.

  2. Feed your mind with all of the relevant information about the situation. A good question to ask is: “What is important to know before I arrive at a conclusion, decision, or action?”

  3. Seek advice and wisdom from those who will be affected. They often hold the key to making good decisions, especially when it comes to those that impact groups or teams. This is often missed when it comes to hiring and succession planning. So, become a “fascinated anthropologist!”

  4. Invite input from people who can help you make a better decision, such as those with expertise, specific knowledge, or a unique lens. I especially like the way Ananda Vanazuela describes this practice here.


Many of the most important influences on our perceptions and behavior are hidden from us. Practicing decision-making through this framework helps pull back the curtain and build alignment, confidence, and understanding.

It’s a practical way to build empathetic leadership that enables everyone to succeed.


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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