The Brian Williams Story: Some Thoughts About Ego at Work

Brian Williams Screenshot

Yes, what did go wrong?

I have been a big fan of Brian Williams for years.  In fact ever since he covered the terrible story of Princess Diana’s death in Paris in August, 1997. I was driving over the mountains from California into Oregon one beautiful summer day and the news came on the radio.  When I go to a motel and turned on the TV, Brian was there for hours covering the story with great intensity and sensitivity.  I was brokenhearted by the story, one of my country’s greatest progeny had been cut down in her prime.  But I was hooked on Brian as a news anchor.  He was the consummate reporter, with an honest face and way of acting, so I thought anyway.  He was steady and unflinching in bringing the details to his audience.

Fast forward to today and I am still a bit shocked by what has happened. Brian has been caught fabricating stories about himself, burnishing his image in ways that seem to have surprised…himself.  He said on air, before he was suspended for 6 months with no pay, that he felt like he was going crazy,  discovering what he had done.  I don’t doubt it because I know something about this.

Brian Williams just woke up and met his EGO.  Like a psychological virus which often lies dormant, as viruses do, for years;  only to pop up one day and shock the daylights out of us with what it has been doing all along, controlling what we do and say.   If you have never had something like this happen to you, then you’re lucky, because I certainly have.  I don’t think I am alone in this at all.  If anything, ego is rampant these days, its everywhere.  One of the best things ever to happen to our egos is social media:  we can pretend that hundreds, even thousands of people are acutely, intensely interested in the minute things of our lives, what we might be doing moment to moment.  I had a woman give me her Twitter handle at a large conference on human resources and as soon as I connected to her feed found that she was tweeting about each store she was in, and which aisle.  This was a business contact!!  Before Facebook and Twitter no one really would have fooled themselves into this, only our nearest and dearest might be interested in such things, and even then not all the time….

In my way of understanding this, ego is more than just “I”.  It is a false “me” which comes about when we don’t really like ourselves and want to create a new identity which might be more acceptable to the world.  Gurus meditating on mountaintops don’t have egos because they don’t worry about what others think of them and don’t play the game of trying to please them.  They have transcended ego.  The rest of us, from the slightly enlightened to the totally unenlightened,  are stuck with one.  The best we can do is be aware of it and try and keep in under control.

Let’s look at Brian Williams in this light:  his lies were all about being a heroic figure.  This is classic ego:  self-aggrandizement, often so that the “new” image our ego projects of ourselves makes us better than others.  Brian, somewhere in the depths of his soul, didn’t think he was good enough, just as he was.  No, he needed to be burnished.  I know it seems crazy to think a handsome, multi-millionaire star of TV news with 10 million nightly viewers could have such a problem, but such is life that it is far from unusual.  Brian must have far felt less than good about himself, otherwise his ego would not have lept to his defense to create a “superman Brian”, under attack in Iraq or saving people as the former volunteer fireman he was.

Remember the classic Saturday Night Live with Michael Jordan being given an affirmation (which he didn’t need) by a character (“Stuart Smalley”) played by Al Franken?  It was: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and by golly people like me”.  It was hilarious and a great send up of all self help industry and all the groups which had sprung up from it.  I don’t expect Brian to be doing something like this any time soon.  But he must still be in a state of shock at this point and that will last for a while.  He will doubtless get the best help which psychology can provide and hopefully he will emerge wiser and more in control of his ego.  I am willing to bet on it.  He will be a lot happier, and not prone to shocking surprises from his hidden self, that’s for sure.  I doubt he will come back to his job;  his employer might fear another “psychological virus outbreak” and the public trust may never return.  But I wish him well.

Personal Note:  David’s ego wants you to know he has written one of the few chapters dedicated to the ego at work that you will find in any business book.  See it in:

The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE (Macmillan, 2012) by David Bowles and Cary Cooper

Read more about how ego affects work among managers here;  and among other workers here.






Add yours →

  1. Very insightful take on what happened to Brian. We would all do well to become aware of our inner selves, part of which is the ego, so that “we” not “it” is in charge.

  2. David, I found your card after my trip to San Diego – we met on a lovely day in a pub in Coronado, and I was taken with your ideas on leadership. I’m now studying up on your works – very insightful, and consistent with many views I hold on culture and leadership. Humorously, your writing is “ego-stoking” for me. Very affirming… 😉

    The specific comment you make about Williams is his desire to be a heroic figure. Spot-on – very difficult for men to shake this desire. We don’t even know it is within us until it comes up and bites us in the ass, as it did with Williams.

    The good news for him is that if he steps back and takes the lesson to heart he can be a better person for it. Getting knocked back is tough in business, and sometimes we don’t recover our public glory (although as of this writing in May 2017 Williams is often seen on MSNBC as a talking head, just not as a news anchor). It’s tough in postmodern times, where money and image is “everything” and a quality sense of self seems to have little public value. But if we can value ourselves more accurately, without the ego taking over as you suggest, then we are a much more authentic human.

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