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Leaders need confidence. Too much confidence, however, can lead to problems. Indeed, there’s probably a continuum we can trace, from confidence through egotism and arrogance to hubris. Somewhere along that continuum, leaders can fail.

David Dotlich and Peter Cairo listed 11 derailers for managers in their book Why CEOs Fail, with arrogance topping the list. Leaders must be confident, but if you have a blinding belief in your own opinions – you’re always right and everybody else is wrong – arrogance could lead to your fall. Studies at various universities have backed this point.

Perhaps the continuum is even longer, starting from lack of self-esteem and running through to hubris. People with poor self-esteem can overcompensate, to the point where they seem arrogant.

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It’s hard to place ourselves accurately on this continuum. But as a leader, you must. I have wrestled with it. It’s difficult to tell because to reach a leadership position, you have usually developed knowledge, confidence in your abilities and an ability to nudge ahead ideas. When is that okay? When is it not?

You need to guard against hubris in others as well. “If an organization has just one or two people whose power has gone to their head, it can demoralize subordinates, cause valuable talent to flee, disempower teams, and lead to foolhardy strategies. Whether you are a board member, a CEO, a senior executive, a high-potential employee on the rise, or an HR leader concerned about culture, you need to understand how such hubris works so you can head off its destructive effects on careers and on your company,” Jonathan Mackey, the managing partner in Heidrick & Struggles’s Toronto office, and Sharon Toye, of the London office, wrote earlier this year in strategy+business magazine.

Hubris is particularly risky in chief executives. A 2013 study of a representative sample of Fortune 500 CEOs over a six-year period found that overconfident ones tend to make risky decisions about mergers and acquisitions. And we know Jim Collins found the best CEOs in his Good to Great study were humble (but determined).

The two consultants note that overweening self-confidence can be surprisingly hard to detect, at least initially. But it’s an acquired trait, not a deeply rooted personality disorder. “It comes on gradually, growing as a leader’s power grows – and it can be managed and even nipped in the bud,” they urge.

The cause can simply be rising through the ranks. Promotions breed confidence – and potentially, arrogance. Recognize expressions of hubris in yourself and your colleagues, including:

  • Blaming others or forces beyond your control when things go wrong;
  • Micromanaging, since only you can do it right;
  • Failing to seek feedback or discounting the feedback you get;
  • Viewing disagreement as a personal slight;
  • Flouting rules because you don’t believe the rules apply to you;
  • Indulging in frequent self-glorification;
  • Treating colleagues or customers arrogantly;
  • Violating company values.

The two consultants recommend building a culture that reduces the possibility of hubris. Focus on values such as openness, collegiality, diversity of thought and other values that run counter to hubris. Establish mechanisms for speaking truth to power. Admit to doubt in decision-making.

The notion of a growth mindset – being open to learning – has been celebrated since psychologist Carol Dweck popularized it in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Your arrogance or hubris can stunt your all-important growth.

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Consultant Steve Keating stresses that no one can be right all the time. “As a leader it is imperative that you never forget what it feels like to be wrong. When you lose that feeling it can lead to sloppy decision-making,” he writes on his blog. The best leaders are confident and bold in their decision-making, he adds, but never to the point of assuming they can’t be wrong. They know they can be as wrong as anyone else.

Trainer Dan Rockwell recommends on his blog pushing back against hubris by exploring “disconfirming feedback," writing a thank-you note to someone who contributed to your success, listing three positive qualities of each team member in a meeting, letting those team members talk and confining yourself to questions and asking yourself, “What if they are right?” He also urges you to monitor your use of “I” and “me.”

“Think of humility as a practice,” he says. Think of arrogance and hubris as a trap, I’d add, that is more likely to strike as you attain greater leadership positions. It can sneak up on you and hurt you badly.

Cannonballs

  • Are you addicted to power? Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor at INSEAD, says you might be if you answer yes to the following questions. Do you like telling people what to do? Do you define yourself very much by your title and net worth? Do you always need to win? Do you enjoy the special treatment that comes with your position? Do you like to impress people?
  • New research shows that celebrity CEOs have poor performance in the long run because they tend to be cast into one of four archetypes – creator, transformer, rebel or saviour – and then try to live up to that billing, consequently with poor decision-making.
  • Some successful leaders lack humility. To explore when humble leadership works and when it doesn’t, researchers studied IT teams in China and found that when teams expected egalitarianism, having a humble leader increased knowledge and information-sharing and helped teams be more creative. But on teams where members expected leaders to be dominant and powerful, humble leaders were met with doubt and team members felt unsafe to speak up and take risks. Their recommendation: Match your level of humility to what team members expect.  

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