By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – What powers the mighty rocket engine of business as it rips free of the earth and ascends into the sky? Is it money? Ambition? Greed? Sex? Fear of death? Of shortness? Of baldness?

No, ladies and gentlemen. It may look like any of those at times, but the font of power--not only in our sector but in just about every arena of human enterprise--is something far more primal, something that lies within each of us but is used to its maximum only by a demented, twisted, and very successful few.


If this is sounding like a eureka moment for me, it's true. It is. I was driving home the other night thinking about things without thinking about them, and listening to the news without hearing it. There was potential war news. There was business news. There was celebrity news. The news poured over me like a boring, smelly river, and the smell in each infopod was similar.


Saddam Hussein has built 31 palaces for himself in a country that doesn't have a receptacle to hold its effluvia. Perhaps it was 61. Either way, it's probably more than he needs. His son runs that nation's Olympic organization, which reportedly tortures athletes who lose their contests and has murdered some for being too popular with those who should be lavishing their attentions on his dad.


A company I know was going along just fine. The CEO got an idea that it needed to be merged with a vastly inferior company with obnoxious and sort of ineffective management that didn't know its limitations. The CEO didn't ask a lot of people for their opinions. He just did the merger because he had Vision. Now the company is sucking wind in historic fashion. Billions of dollars of value have been lost. The management structure had to be redrawn, and all the former heroes ridden out on a rail. Everybody involved looks like a dork and will for a long time. The visionary still contends it was a good idea and, I am sure, sleeps very well at night.


Out in Nebraska, a law firm was going along splendidly, the biggest behemoth on the block out there where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye. Or is that Oklahoma? Whatever. The two top dogs started fighting, and now the company is showing cracks. There are issues of substance separating the pooches, and one may hold opinions about which is right and which needs to have a rolled-up paper taken to his hindquarters...but it really boils down to one thing.


In L.A., where they grow their egos as big and tender as muskmelons, a huge entertainment company was having trouble signing one of its top guys to a new deal with terms that would not snow the company under for the next 16 generations. It offered him everything it could, and yet he would not sign. So the head of the studio threw him a surprise bash at the Ivy. There were pictures of the honored wooee and a banner that said WE LOVE YOU, AL! The guy got all choked up and about a week later signed a deal that had been on the table for a year. "I knew this was the place for me when I saw that banner," he said.

Ego. It drives those who drive the world.

When we are young, our craziest teachers embody it, strutting on their tiny stages like minuscule potentates. As we grow, the teeny pencil-pushing tyrants we work for ooze it. We worship performers who dedicate their lives to it. We eat in restaurants where the chef has so much of it that he won't let us order our tuna well done.

But...what is it?

It's simple. Ego is the self as seen by itself; the I viewed by the inner I. And here's the weird drill: Only the most diseased egos are big enough to confer power. When the inflammation is taken away, they are the smallest egos of them all.

Think of ego as a toe. A normal toe has an appropriate toe size and fulfills its toe function in proportion to the rest of the body. But hit that toe hard--an act usually done in childhood--and the poor thing blows up like a balloon and is never quite the same. The owner of the blown-up toe gets to like the size of it, tends it, buys special clothing so that it can remain comfortable at its egregious size. After a while it needs to be struck over and over again so that its status as the body's most important organ remains secure. For the owner of the big, bulbous toe knows the truth: that inside the enormous appendage is a tiny little piggie.

So the next time your CEO calls to scream about his seating on the dais at an event that makes no difference to anybody, or the CFO wants his extremely unattractive picture on the cover of Vegetable Week, or some guy with funny hair insists on building a nuclear weapon that could threaten the world, just take a deep breath and feel what's going on here.

Ego, that's what. A big, sick ego.

More power to it.

By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at