The boundless self: Dr. Thomas Binder investigates for SCHIRN MAGAZIN the question of how limited managers’ egos actually are.

What an interesting idea: a boundless self. A large number of questions may spring to mind in this context, for example: 

  • How realistic is this from a psychological viewpoint?
  • Is this kind of thing at all meaningful?
  • What would it mean for managers – and especially for a company’s senior management? 

In this short article I would like to expound a few of my thoughts on the subject after working as a management consultant, psychologist and coach for more than 20 years. I will do this with reference to the development of the ego, one of the best-researched approaches to personality development. After all, with no other approach has the development of the ego (or self) been investigated so thoroughly in empirical terms. Moreover, there are many studies on the development of managers’ egos in existence and I would like to illustrate these using my own experience after hundreds of assessments and coaching sessions. 

What do we mean by the term ego and its development? 

The ego should not be equated with the kind of facets of personality that are normally looked at, traits such as extraversion or identity. This is something that often happens and it blurs what is most important here. Moreover, a distinction should really be made between the two elements of the ego. This distinction, which is often neglected but has far-reaching consequences, is that between the ego as subject and the ego as object, as expressed in illustration 1.

When we listen to somebody talking about himself we pay attention to what he is saying, i.e., to the content of his words. For example, if a CEO says: “I have a great sense of duty and am always committed to success,” he is talking about his “ego as object”. He is talking about something of which he himself is aware, to which his self has a sense of belonging. 

However, we could also ask ourselves: Who is it who is making these pronouncements in the first place? After all, the CEO is talking about himself (as object) and is simultaneously an ego, one producing this definition of itself. We ourselves are not really aware of this and it can thus be described as the “ego as subject”. This aspect of the ego would therefore be better portrayed as an “ego as a process”, something to which a person does not really have direct access. 

When talking about personality development, this ego as subject can undergo major transformations. This means that we can distinguish between various stages of personality development and these play an important part in exactly what a person is capable of and where his limits lie. 

A boundless ego?

Two associations come to mind in this context: 

  • An ego that knows no bounds, either in what it expects and wants or in its behavior.
  • An ego that is boundless, i.e., has no boundaries vis-à-vis its environment.

Both are difficult to imagine and, for most people, no doubt almost impossible to bear. 

The first kind of ego is the type that can barely control its impulses, frequently a sign of people whose personality lacks maturity. The kind of manager who wants everything now, immediately, has no control over his own impulses, is hardly in a position to manage people. And because of the limited timeframe involved he is doubtless incapable of managing a company. The second kind of ego is hard to imagine because usually people define themselves by the way they distinguish themselves from other people. There is a German saying which goes something like this: “If you are too open-minded your brain might fall out!” It is obviously difficult to imagine a boundless self because the function of the ego is to guarantee that very unity of self – to integrate everything that we experience and to give it meaning. Nonetheless, this can take place at completely different stages of personal development. 

Where are the boundaries of managers’ egos? Stages of ego development 

Nowadays, after a good four decades of empirical research, we are in a position to distinguish between different stages of ego development and to measure these reliably. At each one of these stages, ten in total, a person has achieved certain accomplishments and is, simultaneously, subject to certain limits as far as his ego is concerned, limits of which he is seldom aware. During this process, it is possible to observe a kind of inner restructuring of what people see as a part of themselves and what they do not see in this way.This balance between subject and object is something that changes fundamentally over the course of personality development. 

Object is that part of our personalities by means of which we ourselves are controlled and to which we consequently have only limited access. By contrast, object is the part on which we can reflect and can thus control. An example: A person who cannot free himself from the expectations, hopes and desires of relevant other people, who allows his own behavior to depend on other people’s approval instead of entering an open discourse with them, is still at what is known as the conforming stage (E4). Many other aspects are linked to this, for instance a somewhat rudimentary understanding of other people and a cognition that is largely rule-based and not particularly sophisticated. 

Even if a manager has an MBA from a top business school or even a PhD, at this stage of his personal development he will not really be in a position to adequately fill a senior management position (cf. Binder, 2007, Kegan, 1998). The reason: As long as he is incapable of acting entirely as his own expectations and mindset demand, he has still not reached that level which is referred to in developmental psychology as a completely adult identity. Known as the conscientious stage (E6), this is accompanied by other qualities such as a healthy degree of self-criticism, the ability to take one’s orientation from long-term objectives and to include other people’s viewpoints in one’s own deliberations. It should be mentioned, however, that a majority of people in Western societies never reach this stage of ego development in their lifetime. It is even the case that many of them are never capable of acting to full capacity at this level over a protracted period (Binder, 2014a, 2016). 

Yet where exactly are the limits of a manager’s ego at the different stages of his ego development? Strictly speaking, beyond his consciousness, in a place where he is not in a position to control them. This area is at the subject side. After all, the logic of ego development demands that as an individual matures as a person, his subject part becomes less pronounced and his object part more prominent. In other words, he is more and more capable of looking at the logic of his own actions and thus being able to change this. This is shown in illustration 2.

It is this very shift in subject/object balance that is the essence of personality development. However, with many managers, as with most people, this development comes to a standstill in their early adult life. As of this point they do continue to learn, but almost no further development takes place. Any newly acquired experience and knowledge can then only be processed with the existing logic underlying their actions. Most senior managers (in industrialized Western countries) have attained a level of development that corresponds to the self-aware stage (E5) or the self-governed stage (E6). 

The question is, however, to what extent this level of ego development is adequate for a world that is becoming increasingly complex and uncertain and consequently making managing companies more and more difficult. Nowadays we talk about something known as a VUCA world (a world characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity; cf. Lemoine & Eppler, 2015). A manager at the post-conventional level of ego development is better equipped for such a world. This kind of management ego has left behind the traditional, more hero-like image of a manager, is in a position to permanently question its own actions and to handle contradictions. It recognizes the interconnectedness and reciprocity that characterizes any complex system nowadays and boasts a consciousness that is able to recognize and process internal and external aspects in a complex way. This kind of ego at the systemic stage of ego development (E8) is extremely rare. Only approximately 4 to 5 percent of all managers ever reach this stage of development. 

However, those managers who accept the challenge of this life-task and follow this path consciously and patiently can extend the existing boundaries of their egos ever further, thus achieving the kind of ego that is in a position to transform itself to an ever greater extent (Torbert, 2004). They are, by this token, capable of truly transformative management. And yet this is seldom successful, which is why an ego of this kind needs a suitable sparring partner. Because of the remarkable stability of the ego, it can usually only be broken down with adequate assistance. And this goes far beyond what is traditionally offered in terms of management development. 

If a manager does reach this systemic stage of ego development he then experiences considerably fewer boundaries, boundaries that are, above all, flexible. The few people who go further, who boast the necessary strength and persistence, will perhaps one day attain a self at the fluid stage (E10). However, at the moment these people would appear to be in a minority – less than one percent of all people achieve this: a self that is admittedly not boundless, but is in a position to increasingly see past the boundaries of its own ego.

About the author:

Dr. Thomas Binder has degrees in Business Administration and Psychology, is a systemic supervisor certified by the Systemic Society (SG) and a mediator certified by the German Mediation Association (BM). He is an internationally active management consultant with a focus on change management, management development and coaching


Illustration: Jan Buchczik

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  • Lemoine, J. & Eppler, M. J. Angemessen antworten. Ein Gespräch mit Jim Lemoine über den Einfluss von VUCA auf das Führungsverhalten. OrganisationsEntwicklung, 2015, 4, 4-6).
  • Torbert, W. et al. Action inquiry. The secret of timely and transforming leadership. (Berrett-Koehler, 2004).