Leadership blindspots: when confidence becomes arrogance

Posted April 19, 2011 in Latest News & Insights

Recently, I’ve been noticing that there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance when it comes to successful people.  As we grow in our careers and move up the ladder, crossing the line between confident ability and overconfident arrogance is one that I think all leaders need to be wary of crossing.  It got me wondering about how you can tell if you’ve crossed the line.

In Jim Collin’s business classic Good to Great, his team of researchers came up with a key quality that separated CEO’s of the “great” companies, from those who ran the “good” companies.  The quality was humility and the leaders were dubbed “level five” leaders who tended to point the spotlight out on the team when things went well and looked in the mirror when things went poorly.

I remember seeing Collin’s speak to this quality shortly after publishing the book and sharing how he was concerned about, then CEO of HP, Carly Fiorina because of her consistent use of “I” language (“I think this…” “I did that…”).  Shortly after that Carly got punted from HP.  Hmmmmmm.

Ironically, in today’s “brand you” workplace, we are continually told to “build our brand” and “demonstrate expertise”, and that if you’re not “blowing your own horn” you’re in danger of being overlooked for opportunities.  But where does the line get drawn?  Having watched a few people lately step over into the land of cockiness and condescension, here’s my personal red flags that indicate maybe you’re thinking  a little to highly of yourself:

  1. It’s all about “me”… if you find yourself saying “I” all the time (like Carly), it’s probably a sign that you’re placing a little too much importance on your own contributions.
  2. Constant criticism… like mama always said, “if you can’t say anything nice…”.  If you are never at a loss to slam people around you for their ineptness, chances are you’re coming across as a little too full of yourself.
  3. Tone of voice… It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  A belittling and dismissive tone of voice when speaking about others says you think you’re better, smarter, more capable.  And yes… this makes you look arrogant and cocky.
  4. General nastiness… along with continual criticism about other people’s capability, a general nastiness about your workplace or environment can be a real turn off.  And frankly, reflects poorly on you since you work there.

The most important aspect of leadership is the ability to engage followers (because frankly, without them you’re really not a leader).  The behaviours above actually do very little to engage people… in fact, in my observation, they generally repel them.  If you find that you’re slipping into these types of patterns perhaps it’s time to step back and ask yourself if you’re really happy doing what you’re doing or where you’re doing it.  Maybe you’re burned out and it’s time for a change.  Or maybe you’re in need of a healthy dose of feedback from a trusted confident who can tell you whether your behaviours have crossed the line into a**hole territory.

I think it’s easier than many of us would probably admit to get caught up in our own hype.  We all need to make sure we’ve got “red flag mechanisms” around us to keep our feet on the ground.  What are yours?

Happy leading!


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