One of the toughest balancing acts in the leadership business is between confidence and too much confidence. If you’re going to succeed as a leader, you need to have confidence in your abilities. If you fail as a leader, you may have too much confidence. This oversimplifies the concept of arrogance, but it hints at the fatal flaw that infects so many CEOs.
Arrogance, from an organizational leadership perspective, is a kind of blinding belief in your own opinions. Under normal circumstances, smart leaders can see when they’re being too stubborn, single-minded, and self-righteous. Unfortunately, most leaders today operate under highly stressful circumstances where they don’t see how their actions are hurting themselves and their companies. From their perspective, they seem to be operating with the same insight and single-minded vision that helped them rise to their position of prominence. They see resistance as irrational, and their position as infallible.
Are you in danger of becoming a tragic hero? To help answer that question, here’s a look at some real leaders we have recently encountered who failed because of arrogance.
By the age of forty, Esi was a top executive in one of the world’s largest global companies. She had the classic pedigree – Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology undergraduate, University of Ghana MBA, and then a quick climb up the rungs of her current company. If you asked people what Esi was like, their inevitable response was “brilliant.” It wasn’t just pure intellectual ability. Esi had a knack for solving business problems, for cutting through all the information and verbiage and homing in on just the right answer. She was a leader in the classic mode: assertive, decisive, and highly strategic. It wasn’t a question if she’d be a CEO some day; it was just a question of when.
The more position, power and influence she gained within the organization, the more assertive she became. It reached the point where, according to one of her direct reports, “Esi was no longer able to manage her own arrogance. “Her conversations became lectures and her team meetings became a forum for her to belittle ideas (from others) that were inconsistent with her point of view. This is not to say that Esi changed in any way. In fact, she became too intensely like herself. She still was coming up with terrific ideas, but they came at a cost. She stopped reading social cues. She didn’t get it when her team sat there quietly as she perorated about a new pet project. Slowly but surely, Esi lost trust and respect among her peers. She became so convinced of the rightness of her perspective that she turned others off. People no longer sought her out or wanted to work with her. Not only did she lose some valued direct reports who left to join other functions or teams, she became embroiled in petty feuds with other top executives over direction and resources. Each argument ended with the other executive saying something along the lines of, “You seem to be certain that you’re right; ‘and Esi responding, “That’s because I am.”
She was shocked, therefore, when the CEO called her into his office and told her she was not in line to succeed him and, in fact, would be working for a peer. It wasn’t as if she’d never received a signal; the CEO and other senior people had talked to her about the problems her overly confident stances were causing. Esi claimed that she thought they were just coaching suggestions; she answered her considerable contributions to the company made her invulnerable.
Even after her career ascent was ended, Esi still had trouble believing she had been derailed. She insisted that it was a matter of principle; that she had stood up for what she believed in and the culture of the company wasn’t receptive to strong, tough-minded female executives. Though Esi recognized that she was “somewhat intolerant” of views that clashed with her own, she claimed that she was primarily intolerant of “mediocre thinking” and was only seeking to raise the performance standards of her peers.
Esi was justifiably proud of her ideas and accomplishments, but at a certain point, she crossed the line. Her arrogance distorted her view of reality; she failed to see how her actions were affecting others. It wasn’t a big distortion, it was a subtle one. When you reach senior leadership levels, however, even small distortions can have a big impact on your career. It was the reason Esi failed.
About the Author:
Dr. Asare Bediako Adams is the Director of Operations for the Chartered Institute of Leadership and Governance and the Executive Director of PMRIG Group of Companies.
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