What do we really
have to worry about?
How Ego And Greed Can Infect Any Entrepreneur
|George Gingerelli: size does matter
As many of you know, I ran an information technology company for about 20 years, called
Delta Research, which we sold at the end of 1994. Many of the experiences I look back on
now as lessons, although I had no idea at the time whether what I was doing was right or
wrong, turned out to be key moments which affected the future of the company.
I was the low man on the totem pole then, no question about it. I didn't have an ego
problem because the mere fact that they had asked me to be part of this start-up was
tremendously exciting. They gave me 2% of the stock and I had never had ownership in
anything before. I said, "This is fantastic!" Twenty years later, when we sold
Delta, I was chairman, president and CEO. I owned 70% of the company. Looking back now, I
wonder what part ego, greed or arrogance played in that. Probably some, but the main thing
in our case was perseverance.
During those 20 years, probably the most exciting thing we ever did was to work on what
became one of the very first commercial email programs, MCI Mail. During that time I got
to meet and work with Vint Cerf. He was one of the first people I looked up to, saying to
myself, " Wow! This guy is really smart." I also thought he had a healthy ego.
For him to stand up in front of the world and say, "In two years we are going to
build this system from scratch, with this budget and in this period of time. We'll bring
together all of these contractors who are competitors and we'll build this thing."
That took confidence. He used to describe it as building an airplane in flight. I looked
at him and said to myself, "This is impossible." Well, it wasn't impossible; we
did it. I learned a valuable lesson which I have thought of many, many times since then
and applied it to many other peoplethis world has a tremendous amount of tolerance
for people who have big egos and deliver.
Ego: Contain It
Ego, greed and arrogance are human characteristics, human tendencies. We all have them.
They are particularly strong, most likely, among entrepreneurs like those in this room.
However, don't confuse the positive characteristics of self-confidence, self-esteem, the
desire to succeed, motivation and competitiveness with the negative and often destructive
characteristics associated with an overblown ego, uncontrolled greed and arrogance.
I notice that I had to put an adjective in front of ego and greed, because, by
themselves, they are not altogether bad. They are cases where size does matter.
Among other things, most of which are fairly positive, ego is defined as
"self-esteem." It's good to have high self-esteem. It's good to think that you
have the capability to do something such as what Vint Cerf did. It's okay to have a big
ego, if you control it. That's the message as far as ego is concerneddon't squash
it, contain it. And having an ego is particularly good, if you deliver.
When I think about people with large egos who delivered, besides Vint who I pick on
with affection, are people like Joe Namath, who guaranteed that the Jets were going to win
Super Bowl III, even though the world laughed at him because the team that he was playing,
the Baltimore Colts, was unbeatable. A lot of people called him arrogant, said that his
ego was out of control, but the guy delivered. Another great sports figure, Muhammad Ali,
called himself "The Greatest." Well, he just might have been. He can say it, if
he can do it.
Contain your ego, but know who you are.
One of the first things you have to do in businessin all of life,
actuallyis to know who you are and your characteristics. Understand whether you have
a big ego, or not. Understand whether greed or the desire for material possessions drives
you. Understand that you may border on arrogance. Once you understand those things, then
you can begin to have the discipline to deal with them, but if you don't deal with them,
they are going to destroy you.
Greed: Control It
Lets talk about greed. I looked that up in the dictionary because, in my background,
greed was always a bad word. Well, the definition isn't exactly rosy. It says greed is
"excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness," but I was able to stretch out a
good piece in there. Acquisitiveness is okay. Eagerness is okay. The whole idea about
wanting to succeed in a measurable way is okay.
It's self-gratification at the expense of everybody elseat the expense of your
company, your employees, your familyit's unbridled greed that's destructive. It's
not all bad. You've probably got a little bit of it in you; we all do. The message with
greed is to control it.
When I sold my company, I did what Mario talked about. I understood a little bit about
the merger and acquisition process, so I went about it analytically. I figured out what my
company was worth. I removed myself from the process and figured out what the deal ought
to be, objectively, I came up with a number and, when it came time to negotiate, I was not
affected by greed. Well, I was tempted every now and then, when another number was thrown
out, but I knew what I wanted. I knew what I should get and I got it. Today, people say to
me, "You could have gotten more. You should have waited another year or two."
No, I got what I wanted. As Mario cautioned, you have to be careful not to let greed get
in the way of achieving what you set out to accomplish.
Arrogance: Squash It!
Sometimes people think they are the company. Company, by definition, involves other
people. You may be the leader, but you need to be concerned about keeping the company
With both ego and greed I was able to find some positive aspects to it. Arrogance,
which is defined as "a feeling or impression of superiority manifested in an
overbearing manner or presumptuous claims," well, I can't find anything good about
it. There is nothing to recommend arrogance. It is not self-confidence. Don't tolerate
arrogance, in other people or in yourself. Squash it.
With ego, contain it. With greed, control it. With arrogance, squash
it, because it's going to hurt you.
When I went over 50% ownership in the company, I had it all. I could make decisions
without being questioned. I could build the company, tear it down, do anything I wanted. I
could have gotten out of control, but something which the company's founder, my mentor,
did when we started continued to serve me well. We put together a board of directors of
which the majority were outsiders. People used to ask me, "Why do you put up with
that? Why do you go to board meetings four times a year and let those people tell you what
The answer is that it kept me humble. It kept me on my toes. It allowed me to hear what
I was doing wrong or what I could do better from people whom I respected. I suggest that
you surround yourself with people who will tell you what you can do better. It's essential
to your own growth and to the growth of your business.
With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, let me leave you with a few other thoughts: If the
size of your ego exceeds the size of the fire in your belly, you might be an egomaniac. If
you want more, solely for the sake of having more, you might be too greedy. If after a
sales call, the prospective customer goes with your competitor's inferior product just to
avoid giving you the sale, you might be arrogant.
At their very worst, ego and greed often work together to bring down individuals and
companies. It's very common for natural leaders to have big egos. Great leaders, however,
put the welfare of their constituentswhether it's their company or their
familiesahead of their own desires. Don't ever let your greed prevent others from
receiving what they deserve. You can see the effects most clearly in the acquisition of
companies. Acquisition is tough on people. The people who own the most stock walk away
feeling pretty good about it. If they forget about the people who helped them get there,
if they don't make provisions for them to share in the largesse of that acquisition, then
shame on them.
Don't ever be so arrogant and greedy that you forget about the other people. When you
oversell yourself, you undersell your company. When you overvalue yourself, you undervalue
the contributions of those who helped make the company succeed.