The Cost of Arrogant Leadership

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Mac Davis sang, “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way,” and whilst the song is tongue-in-cheek it speaks to a challenge faced by today’s leaders. To get to the top you have to be very good at what you do and let the right people see and hear about your competency; you have to have healthy self-esteem to handle the knocks and the naysayers and this leads to a healthy dose of self-belief. So by the time you get to a leadership position you view of the world is likely to be that you are better than those who have not yet made it and this is seen as arrogance (an attitude of superiority or an overbearing manner) and arrogance can be the kiss of death for a leader as it generates resentment and enemies.

So how can a leader be humble when he/she has to be so good?

Research (Tangney 2002) identifies a number of key features of humility:

  1. An accurate (not underestimated) sense of one’s abilities and achievements.
  2. The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations.
  3. Openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice.
  4. Keeping one’s abilities and accomplishments in perspective.
  5. Relatively low focus on self and the ability to “forget the self”.
  6. Appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world.

Each of these attributes of humility can be practiced, alone or with the help of a coach. The alternative is to be drawn towards narcissism. The narcissist has a positive view of themselves which is fuelled by fantasizing about fame and success, trying to publically outperform others and winning admiration. Narcissists have a feeling of entitlement, that they deserve special treatment, and are focused on collecting those rewards.

Many corporate cultures fuel the narcissistic personality because this type of behavior can deliver short term results. The price that organizations must pay is that the narcissist is hypersensitive to threats to their esteem and are likely to react with anger and aggression at any sign of disrespect. Such a culture will be low on cooperation and collaboration and high on defections.

In Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” he found through surveys that humble leadership (opposite of arrogance) was one of the many leadership traits that contributed to the long-term success of organizations. Humble leaders get involved, are willing to listen to opposing viewpoints, and have high self-esteem. They have high moral values, which causes them to be centered on doing things right for the right reasons. They energize others, and believe their talents are a gift to be kept in perspective both in the work place and in their personal lives.

In our Self-leadership programs we stress the importance of developing a healthy Self-esteem that allows the individual to welcome both positive and negative feedback without over-reacting to either. In working with leadership teams, we stress discovering your own strengths and the strengths of your colleagues which make us more accepting of weaknesses and creates the cognitive trust and collaboration to win as a team.

So consider this; you may not be perfect in every way but that is by design, leadership is about playing to your strengths, minimizing your weaknesses and developing trusting relationships that get the job done.

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