Diary of a CFO: Christiaan Engelbrecht on how ego shapes the corporate world

In November 2016, Christiaan Engelbrecht joined Ster-Kinekor as CFO, a highlight in a finance career that started at Deloitte and Vodacom. He keeps a monthly diary for CFO.co.za to share his trials, tribulations and triumphs. This is part 3: how ego shapes the corporate world.

March is my birthday month; a month when I reflect on the past year; a month when I dream about the next 12 months so I can set my intentions and goals. Part of this inner journey is to give gratitude for all the blessings and to reconnect to my core in preparation for the year ahead. One of my lifelong goals of becoming CFO crystallised! I started a path of thinking how good I must be to achieve this at 35; how great I was doing in my career, how I managed to network well so I can have this opportunity… then I realised that this is the darker side of my ego gaining ground and I am at risk of slipping into the deep hole of narcissism. A dark space I do not want to enter.

A lot of times we loosely say that so-and-so has a big ego. We are very good at identifying this. Yet, do we really understand what ego is? Among many things, Freud conceptualised three parts of Self to help us grasp the concept and purpose of ego better. Firstly, he defined the Id. Id is the primal side of our psyche, sometime referred to as the mammal or reptilian brain. Id is very close to how we were as primal humans, concerned with the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. On the other side of the spectrum is the Superego. The Superego is connected to our higher truth, where we inherently have wisdom and understanding of any situation and act according to purpose for the greater good. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Superego reaches into the highest levels of self-actualisation. Somewhere between Id and Superego, is the Ego. According to Freud, the Ego's function is to look at the information at hand, listen to both the Id and Superego, and decide which course of action to take. Ego makes its judgements from the many experiences it has had, which information was presented multiple times, over and over; which options worked out well and which didn't. Apart from this function of judging between courses of action, the Ego starts creating identity of self from the repetition of selected paths. Ego starts becoming its very own judgments.

Boardrooms are no different. How often have we seen that there are options tabled and then some to react with a sense of primal drive to only focus on one dimension, say profit?

Then there are those who take a very holistic view of the options incorporating the environment and people who are impacted by the options and the influence on the industry. We see the decision taking place by decision-makers finding the "middle ground". This happens repeatedly and consistently and the corporate ego is created. Flowing from there the entire organisation adopts this Ego.

I've seen on many occasions at many companies how the aggressive and forceful boardroom Id takes control. It blasts over the Superego with no conscious understanding of what it is busy with. Bombastic and narcissistic personalities usually manipulate or assert a level of forceful behaviours to overpower the Superego players. The corporate Ego, more often than not, identifies with this behaviour, which leads to company ethos of control, blame and corporate backstabbing.

In extreme cases, this is often detrimental for business, the executive is also very vindictive, ineffective as a unit, the employees suffer as a result of thereof, customers are deterred and overall corporate failure results.

If, however, the boardroom's judgement on matters is replaced with that of discernment, we have a completely different outcome. Where the tactics of Id are understood and not rejected, where Superego is also incorporated, and most importantly where the company does not identify itself completely within the personalities of a handful of people, these companies thrive at all levels, profits included.

The Ego responses of the leaders, to a large extent, determine the Ego of the company, and the collective Ego of the company circles back to the Ego of its leaders. As I realised my introspection is leading me onto a narcissistic path of self-admiration, I quickly had to adjust my thinking in two ways. First adjustment: gratitude. I adjusted my thinking from I am so great and I did this to that of gratitude for being part of certain experiences. I was a conduit for that goodness to manifest for service to others. Second adjustment: non-attachment. Achievements are actually just the blessings I have been granted to grow myself. It was given to be part of my life so I can hopefully touch other lives for the better. It is not mine, it is there for everyone.

I was once again in a more connected space. Only now am I ready to set my intentions for the year ahead. The company executive set out the company ideals a while ago. We are not creating a company with control and blame as key features, we are creating a company where we want the culture to be open, light and co-operative. To create that, I need to be open, light and co-operative. In this I set my corporate intention for the year ahead: openness, being light at work and co-operative.