Ego Makes Good Products Fail (Remove Ego to See Reality)

Bill Joiner wrote a book called Leadership Agility. It’s a book about ego removal.

Let’s highlight some ideas from the book to see how ego works, how it kills good products, perpetuates bad ones, and how to remove ego in the moment.

Agility and Heroism

Joiner presents some stages that describe the development of a leader.

There are three stages above a certain developmental ceiling, and we’ll take a look at two levels beneath the developmental ceiling.

  • Three levels above the developmental ceiling
  • Developmental Ceiling
  • Two levels beneath the developmental ceiling

The Expert - Beneath the Developmental Ceiling

  1. (Third level above)
  2. (Second level above)
  3. (First level above)
  4. (Second level beneath)
  5. The Expert

The Expert is characterized by their knowledge of the material, of a technique, or processes, of a solution. In fact, they identify with their knowledge. Their person and their abilities, in their mind, are one. You attack the knowledge, you attack the person. There’s a defense mechanism, a hoarding of the knowledge.

The Achiever - Beneath the Developmental Ceiling

  1. (Third level above)
  2. (Second level above)
  3. (First level above)
  4. The Achiever
  5. The Expert

The Achiever operates like an expert that organizes processes around that expertise to achieve more. Their identity is entangled into their level of achievement, of hustling hard, of besting others, of producing results.

Beneath the Developmental Ceiling, The Heroic Stages

Both The Expert and The Achiever operate in what Joiner calls the “Heroic” or “Egoic” stages. They achieve results, they provide value, they represent the majority of leaders, the majority of the time.

But they’re not operating at levels that Joiner calls “Post-Heroic”. For that, they’d need to surpass the Developmental Ceiling.

Above the Developmental Ceiling, The Post-Heroic Stages

  1. The Synergist - Post-Heroic
  2. The Co-creator - Post-Heroic
  3. The Catalyst - Post-Heroic
  4. The Achiever - Heroic (or Egoic)
  5. The Expert - Heroic (or Egoic)

Leaders operate at Post-Heroic stages when they surpass their developmental ceiling.

  • They’re able to disassociate themselves from their achievements and their expertise;
  • They’re able to adopt new ways of thinking;
  • They’re able to be mentally agile;
  • They’re able to remove their egos on the spot.

Ego Detection, The Developmental Ceiling

What marks those operating beneath the developmental ceiling from those operating above the developmental ceiling?

Ego detection.

  • The ability to notice when the ego surfaces
  • The ability to see when the brain is acting in a reactionary mode
  • The ability to see when thoughts are colored by certitude, this-or-that thinking, labelling, biases, convictions and the ability to re-write thoughts in the moment.

Real-Time Ego Detection

When operating at a Post-Heroic stage, you can spot thoughts that come from the ego. They usually have “if’s”, “unless’s”, “either’s”, “surely’s”, “should’s”, “or else’s”…

  • If only I…
  • Unless I… I’ll never be able to…
  • It’s either I… or surely I’ll…
  • I gotta be decisive or else
  • This thing surely isn’t going to work…

These thoughts are subconscious. Spotting the ego is about shining a light on those lenses that colour your perception of what’s really there.

Before we go further into ego removal, let’s look at its effect on leading product development.

Good Products Fail Because of Ego

A lot of the advice you get when you’re building a product looks like this:

  • Stick with it;
  • Start small;
  • Quit if you’re not seeing the numbers;
  • If you don’t get a conversion rate of X, there’s something wrong;
  • Sharpen your positioning, go for your ideal buyer.

Those are high-level statements. But along the timeline of a product’s development, tons of small decisions need to be made. Over the long haul, the ego has plenty of occasions to creep in, to surface thoughts with some “surely’s and some “either’s”.

  • Surely it’ll take way too long to get traction.
  • It’s either I overhaul the product or I tank it.
  • I have to start seeing some results, or else my reputation will be tarnished.

And because that ego detection skill is rare and hard, a lot of good products are killed by doubt or indecision.

Because of ego, discernment was swayed by thoughts that weren’t caught and re-written.

Bad Products Aren’t Killed, Because of Ego

Or maybe you know a founder or two with a lot of ego. They tout their ability to get top investment money. They push hard toward a vision. They bark back at dissent. They demand high levels of work ethic, of efficiency, of hustling long hours.

These leaders are totally blind to the mental lenses operating subconsciously. They never notice when their ego is colouring their judgment, they just push through. Textbook achiever/heroic/egoic profile.

This is the reality they risk being blind to: their product never had what it took to work.

The product might have been salvageable, but the founder’s ego was in the way.

Because of ego, bad products aren’t killed, modified, resharpened or downsized when they should.

Because of ego, thoughts weren’t re-written when they should have been.

Re-writing Thoughts

Ego removal is about catching and re-writing thoughts. There are two big lenses to look out for, one basic way to re-write a thought, and I’ll share my favourite method of actively re-writing my thoughts.

Two Big Lenses to Spot

  1. The identity (labelling) lens: You’ll know your thought is coloured by this lens when you spot an “is a” in your mind. “This person is a”. Re-write with “This person has a” or “This person can” or “This person prefers”;
  2. The opposition lens: “Either”, “Or”. This lens creates a choice, a duality, restricts your view to two possible outcomes. Re-write with “Maybe there’s a way to have a third option” and “Maybe there’s a way to do both.”

One Basic Way to Re-write a Thought

When spotting a thought that the ego is clinging to, one basic way to re-write that thought is to simply reply (internally) with “Maybe”.

  • Surely it’ll take way too long to get traction.


  • It’s either I overhaul the product or I tank it.


  • I have to start seeing some results, or else my reputation will be tarnished.


“Maybe” takes the edge off. It acquieces that the ego had a hold on a thought, and disassociates the thought from the reaction.

Then you can re-write the thought with something else.

Active Thought Re-writing

Here’s how I actively re-write my thoughts. I do this pre-emptively, or anytime I sense a reaction swelling, a duality, a labelling, a “surely”, an “unless”, etc.

  1. I open a TaskPaper document (it lets me indent);
  2. I make a heading called “Mental models:” (another word for those subconscious lenses, those certitudes, biases, etc);
  3. I write each of the thoughts I’m able to dig up;
  4. I answer myself with a corrected, re-written, closer-to-reality statement;
  5. Repeat.

Mental models: Surely it’ll take way too long to get traction - Maybe - Maybe I’m in a dip and I need to push through - I’m in a winner-take-all scenario and it’ll be worth the effort - Probably It’s either I overhaul the product or I tank it - Maybe I can re-package it to precisely address some specific jobs-to-be-done That will be too much work, (surely) it’ll be an overhaul - Maybe I can just rejig the landing page to focus on those situations when the product is most useful - Maybe I only need to test hiding a few features and it won’t be such an overhaul I have to start seeing some results, or else my reputation will be tarnished. - Maybe - Maybe my reputation will be strengthened by my ability to remove my ego and see reality

Removing your ego to see reality. That’s a good way to build the right product.

Stay sharp!


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