Arrogance and Humility

Arrogance and Humility

Leadership requires being visible. We can discuss leading from in front versus leading from behind. We can also discuss leadership versus authority and many other interesting ways to discuss leadership. Through it all, however, I believe there is a requirement that as a leader you are visible. You have to visible to your own organization and to those with which your organization interfaces.

As a leader, you are representing yourself, your organization (company), and your team. That representation affects your business deals, negotiations, employee recruiting and retention, and, most importantly, customer interactions and viewpoint. Whether you wish to lead by example or otherwise, your attitudes will indicate to internal and external parties the attitudes, values, and approach of your organization.

The Wall Street Journal published a column last fall (I'm behind, I know) positing that the best bosses are humble. Management blogs everywhere seemed to explode. Harvard Business Review, non-ironically asked why then most leaders are so arrogant and wanted to remind us of recent research on when being a humble leader backfires. Other blogs basically just called "Bullshit!" and left it at that.

This debate gets to one of the essential challenges of leadership: it is a series of trade-offs and dichotomies that have to be approached, measured, and dealt with on a daily basis. I don't need to do the statistic research to know, based on extensive experience that:

  1. People don't like arrogant people
  2. People want their bosses to have self-assurance
  3. Self-assurance is usually just a nice way to say "arrogant"

What all this debate comes down to is that the how of leadership, such as word choice and body language are some of the most important things to pay attention to when working with a team.

When I go to work, I want my manager to be better at my job than I am. I want to learn from her. I want to be inspired by her. I also don't want her to be an arrogant jerk. The question becomes: how do you display your expertise, confidence, and knowledge, without being a jerk about it?

It sounds like it shouldn't be that hard, but it really is that hard. I can think of a few reasons why (certainly not an exhaustive list):

  1. Most leaders really are arrogant. I mean, don't you have to be to be able to think you can tell people what to do and lead them to greatness?
  2. Everyone is conditioned to think leaders are going to be arrogant. They are looking for confirmation of this believe and will choose to interpret things on the line as being arrogant rather than providing the benefit of the doubt
  3. Many people are jealous of people in power, leading to more of #2

I'm not positing that leaders should get the benefit of the doubt here, but when the default assumption tips the scales to arrogant, it will be pretty hard to avoid. Further, I imagine most of us would prefer to follow someone on the arrogant side over someone who doesn't seem to know what they are doing.

Let's assume that leaders are, in general, more arrogant than humble. Let's further assume that while people like confidence, they don't want their leaders to be straight-up jerks. What are we to do about it? How should we counsel leaders? Back to my earlier points this comes down to is the how of leadership: word choice and body language.

If someone on the team is not doing their job right, we have to help them to improve. We could tell them it's obvious or dumb or roll our eyes or take the job away. As an alternative a leader can guide, and suggest, and encourage.  Leaders have to remember that the way they do a task is not the only way to do the task. They have to encourage and embrace the results of their team in various acceptable methods.

Arrogance isn't just knowing you can lead, do, or inspire. True arrogance comes from thinking that your way is the only way.

Leaders have to be confident, self-assured, and a bit arrogant. If we didn't believe we could lead our teams to great things, well, then, we simply could not do so. We must have the audacity to believe we can build powerful organizations and businesses that will grow and succeed.

We also have to be humble enough to know that others can, too, and there might be better (or at least different ways) to get to that goal. I strongly believe that success if parts of timing, luck, hard work, and capability. Organizational success, by nature, is not a solo enterprise. We must have our teams with us or we will absolutely will not succeed.

I am confident in my future and my ability to lead. The trust and commitment my team makes to work with me on that journey humbles me. I just keep on trying to get that balance just right in the middle.