• Leadership

Ego and Eco Intelligence

6 keys to leadership when the workplace is less a hierarchy and more an ‘ecosystem’ of interconnected teams and individuals


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Research shows that more and more employees are becoming disengaged from their work and less committed to their organizations. In their chapter contribution to the book, Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, Ashridge’s Sharon Olivier and her co-author Frederick Hölscher argue that leadership style can play a major role in employee engagement.

They define ‘intelligence’ as the ability of leaders to adopt, shape and (co)-create the world they live in. This results in culture and the way they lead in the workplace.

In today’s complex and volatile environment, Olivier and Hölscher explain, leaders must balance what they call Ego Intelligence and Eco Intelligence. Ego Intelligent leaders lean heavily on what they can accomplish as individuals, with the emphasis on ‘shaping the workplace’ according to their needs and ideas, which leads to a top-down, command-and-control leadership style. Eco Intelligent leaders, on the other hand, recognize that today’s workplace is less a hierarchy and more an ‘ecosystem’ of interconnected teams and individuals, they emphasise the abililty to ‘adopt’ from various resources (stakeholders, employees) and facilitate ‘co-creation’ by leveraging the interdependencies in the workplace.

An ecosystem does not succeed in the long term when it is controlled, but when it is nurtured — which means creating the context that leverages, through open collaboration, exchange and feedback, the strengths of all the different parts of the organization. Eco Intelligent leaders, Olivier and Hölscher write, have moved from being ‘bosses’ to being ‘facilitators’.

Another way of differentiating between the two approaches is that Ego Intelligent leaders determine what the organization needs to do and how the organizations need to do it. Eco Intelligent leaders determine the what, but they leave the how for their people or the team to determine.

In their chapter, Olivier and Hölscher lay out six specific leadership attributes or practices for successful Eco Intelligent leadership. 

  1. Unleashing individual talent.Rather than issuing orders, Eco Intelligent leaders require their employees and followers to determine how they can contribute to the goal of the organization, not only through their own talents, but also through their ability to collaborate with others.
  2. Purpose and ownership.Employees must be intrinsically motivated to pursue common goals. A pithy mission statement emerging from the C-suite is not good enough. Where Ego Intelligent leaders create ‘buy-in’ through telling and selling their ideas to the workforce,  Eco Intelligent leaders have mastered the art of asking the relevant questions to enable employees to come up with solutions, thus establish a sense of ‘ownership’ of what needs to be done, instead of ‘buy-in’ from the boss.  
  3. Full autonomy and full support. Eco Intelligent leaders understand the difference between 'supporting' employees — giving them the resources and capabilities they need to succeed — instead of micro-managing them.
  4. Deposits in emotional bank accounts.Ego Intelligent leaders make deposits in the ‘emotional bank accounts of their employees through recognition and rewards (extrinsic motivation), Eco intelligent leaders, make deposits in the emotional bank accounts through leveraging intrinsic motivation, helping employees to find meaning and purpose I the work place.
  5. Shared vulnerability and wholeness.In Eco Intelligent cultures, people will highlight their strengths but are also not afraid to admit their weaknesses. No one is perfect, and covering up weaknesses only undermines the effectiveness of the team.
  6. From leader to leadership.Eco Intelligent leaders “do not dominate the leadership space,” the authors write. In teams that self-organize, natural leaders — those with the most experience related to a certain project, for example — are encouraged to step forward and take the leadership role; and when the occasion demands it, they will also easily step back when someone else is more suited.

Many organizations or their leaders believe that leadership culture is an either-or proposition: the culture can be driven by Ego Intelligence or Eco Intelligence, but not both. While most individual leaders might lean toward one approach or the other —because of their personalities, past experiences, or other reasons — the most effective leaders recognize that both approaches have their merits and their weaknesses and they will use the required intelligence wisely to fit the situation.

Ego Intelligent leadership can be effective if the work is simple, predictable and easily measured, for example, or if there is a crisis and the team does not have the information or capacity to self-organize. Eco Intelligent leadership, on the other hand, is more effective in complex and uncertain environments where there are no clear answers to problems. It is also more effective when interdependent action, whether between teams or individuals, is required for success.

Some companies tend to be constantly swinging wildly between the two approaches. They get themselves locked in an infinity loop, as the downside of one or the other approach becomes apparent and problematic, these companies move too far in the other direction, only to eventually rush back to the original favoured Intelligence — and so on in an infinite loop that whiplashes the company from side to side.

The authors regard Ego Intelligence and Eco Intelligence as a polarity or paradox to manage rather than a problem to solve in an either-or way. (may be polar opposites,) The best leaders and organizations can, Olivier and Hölscher write, “manage the polarity” by replacing the ‘either-or’ mindset with a ‘both-and’ mindset. All leaders have ego needs, and abilities and all leaders are part of ecosystems. The best leaders know when to rely on their ego strengths (to create order through shaping the behaviour of others) but also, the authors write, “when to ‘tame’ the ego and to allow the ecosystem to self-organize and self-manage.” The result is a more engaged and self-motivated workforce and an organization in the best position to respond to today’s volatile, uncertain and complex business environment.

Sharon Olivier MA, MAP, NLP, PNI: Sharon is currently Director of Open Programmes at Ashridge Executive Education at the Hult International business school, where she manages a portfolio of Open Programmes. She teaches, conducts research & consults in Strategic HR Management; Leadership development, particularly in Leadership Intelligence, the Neuroscience of Leadership,  Engagement, Polarity Management, Spiritual (SQ) Intelligence; Talent Management and Personal Resilience.

Frederick Hölscher PhD, NLP: Frederick conducts research and consults in Strategy development, Leadership development with a specific focus on Leadership Intelligence, Polarity Management and how to maximise people’s impact on business, especially in times of uncertainty and volatility in complex environments. He has a specific passion for reconciliation, dealing with diversity and adversity which is brought about by the experience of paradox and dilemmas in the workplace.


Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, edited by Kerrie Fleming and Roger Delves, published by Bloomsbury Business Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1-47293-207-5


Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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