The Problem of Arrogance: One reason Why Leaders Who Fail, Fail

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

Proverbs 11: 2

One of my favorite fables has always been Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Its message is simple, yet profound— thinking too highly of yourself can put you out of touch with reality and lead you to make errors that would be impossible for a humbler person. In the story of this particular emperor, an egotistical style caused him extreme embarrassment and a loss of prestige, illustrating its self-defeating nature. In our modern day world of business, such arrogance can produce disastrous economic consequences, including the loss of customer loyalty and competitive position in one’s market. In the case of General Motors, it led to one of the most dramatic business declines in history in a few short decades. Virtually every analyst of that case claims that arrogance and rigidity among key decision makers were as much the causes of the downfall as any other factor. 

Warren Bennis, one of the most well known commentators on successful leadership over the last 50 years, has repeatedly reported that in case after case, a lack of humility was an underlying factor in leadership failures.  Daniel Goleman’s work on “emotional intelligence” shows that people in leadership positions often fail because they are unable to learn by listening to others, and to seriously reconsider what seems obvious to them from their own point of view. Irving Janis, famous for his work on “groupthink” as a cause of organizational disasters, also reported that egotistical, authoritarian leadership styles were frequently among the root causes of errant decisions. When the Bible, popular folklore, and research on organizational behavior all convey the same message, I think we should listen!

Seeking the balance between self-confidence and humility

Everyone who knows anything about leadership in business or any other domain is aware of the importance of self-confidence and self-directedness. No one who is “weak-kneed” or chronically low in self-esteem will ever be a successful inspiration to others, nor will they be capable of taking the responsibility necessary to run a successful enterprise. The problem is that, in an American culture that stresses self-reliance, decisiveness, and independence, it is common to lose sight of the importance of the “soft” aspects of leadership— empathy, compassion, and the ability to second guess oneself. What is needed is an ability to combine a strong sense of self with an acceptance of one’s potential for error.

It isn’t easy to maintain this balance. When you open yourself up to advice and criticism, there will always be those who attempt to exploit that for their own self serving agendas.  That’s an old story too, so it makes sense to keep your guard up.  On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be overly defensive, you’ll be rigid and  authoritarian, which will also lead to poorly informed, dysfunctional courses of action.  Decision makers face this challenge every day, so how do the ones who manage it deal with it? 

Maintaining your confidence while avoiding arrogance

Keep in mind that we’re all subject to the influences of a world that encourages us to think highly of ourselves, but at the same time is also working on us to create self doubt and erode our self confidence. That is an annoying and unpleasant truth, but if accepted in a functional sense, it becomes a constructive first step toward maintaining a useful harmony between confidence and humility. One unfortunate input into the imbalance is the “self esteem movement” of recent decades that has emerged to poison the minds of many. A poorly thought out “pop psych” scheme, this ill-conceived fad emphasizes only the need to think highly of oneself. Critics of this movement have noted that it has bred all kinds of destructive tendencies, including bullying, intolerance of criticism, a sense of entitlement, rampant narcissism, and a host of other pathologies. All of these have been associated with failures in leadership at the adult level, as well as many dysfunctions that plague our youth.

How then, are we to maintain the balance between a healthy sense of self and the kind of humility that will allow us to be effective leaders in the settings in which we function? One approach is to emphasize the distinctions between arrogance and self-confidence, and to avoid the former as we pursue the latter. At least three things are true of arrogance in our society, all of which are easy to keep in mind as we go about our daily routines: 

• Everybody hates arrogance, and associates only negatives with it. In ten years of conducting research on the subject, I ran across no instance of it being identified with anything useful or good.  Strangely enough however:

• It’s rampant! One hundred percent of those whom I interviewed regarding it claimed to know innumerable cases of persons whose arrogance irritates them to no end.

• Even people regarded as highly arrogant by others say that arrogance is a problem in our society.

If everybody hates it, why is it so prolific?

In the research I directed, I found that most people suggested that those they know who are arrogant frequently do get their own way in the short run. The intimidating school bully, boss, or coworker often gets what he or she wants because their more reasonable counterparts back off so as to avoid ugly confrontations, avoid punishment, or to keep the peace. People who deploy arrogance as a tactic for getting what they want therefore, often get immediate reinforcement for their behavior. Like the rat that gets a food pellet for pressing the bar in a Skinner Box, they tend to repeat what has worked for them in the past, even if it doesn’t work every single time. In the long run however, this strategy backfires. Those who can avoid them do, and those who can’t avoid them develop strategies for thwarting the games that they play, very often in creative ways.

In sharp contrast, effective leaders do not rely on influences that produce simple obedience or compliance in the short run, only to backfire later. They have the wisdom to adopt behavioral styles that lead others to internalize, or “buy into” their goals, values, and visions. The chemistry that produces such effects in subordinates is complex, and research tells us not to expect a set formula. Good leaders may be tough, tender, more formal, or more “loosey goosey.” Very often they lead by example rather than through the identifiable exercise of authority. What they do have in common is that they manage to keep people committed to goals, and are seen as facilitators of goal attainment.   

In addition, those who lead effectively are those who are able to avoid slipping into the trap of arrogance. It’s not that they don’t ever make the mistake— they just don’t make it for long. In some cases, their natural tendency to “take charge” runs a little amok for a little while. In others, it can happen due to fatigue, frustration, or simply “having a bad day.” We’re all susceptible, although some more than others. What is important is that they don’t let it become a chronic problem for their subordinates.

A simple scheme for helping to maintain the right balance

Arrogance is a problem as old as human history, but it’s manageable through some common procedures that most successful people engage in as a matter of course. Below are some simple suggestions that can help:

• Keep a private, daily journal that acknowledges areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with how you handled the day’s activities. Be as honest as you can about both. Use it as a guide to reflection, and use it to set goals.

• As part of the above, note occasions on which you’ve acted arrogant and what the consequences were. Also note instances in which you’ve been “too nice” and got steamrollered. Figure on how you would do better in similar situations that are sure to arise.

• Don’t insist on feeling great about yourself all the time— you can’t, and still be in touch with reality. The Christian model of admitting your mistakes, repenting, and moving on without undue guilt is not just spiritual. It’s practical!

• Don’t go it alone. Seek the counsel of trusted others as often as possible. Also make time for leadership seminars, workshops, and you’ve got a chronic imbalance, get a good executive coach (emphasis on good— coaches are sprouting like mushrooms, so be sure to avoid the wannabe psychotherapists. Some of these have bigger problems than you’ll ever have).

Most of all, keep in mind that we’re in a world of complexity, change, and stress that frequently strives to bring out the worst rather than the best in us. It takes a special awareness of self— both strengths and weaknesses (if you’re uncomfortable with that last word, let’s just say “areas in which you might benefit from further development”).   Remember that both learning and personal growth are lifelong processes. The second you see yourself as a finished product, you’re off course— get ready for a correction. I guarantee that there will be one coming your way!