How Leaders Can Be Humble in an Age of Arrogance

arrogant leader

Leadership Power

Leadership is often linked to power, and it can unfortunately also be linked with arrogance. I believe most leaders are positive people who want to use their power and influence for good. Most people don’t start a career plan with the goal to become arrogant, either. And yet it happens.

How should leaders use power? How do leaders protect against becoming arrogant? How do leaders stay humble?

As one of the early endorsers of The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, I had the opportunity to interact with authors Bill Treasurer and John Havlik about their work. They have known each other for decades, but they took decidedly different paths. Bill is founder of Giant Leap Consulting and has authored several books on leadership. John Havlik is a retired Navy SEAL who led special operations teams around the world for decades. The combination of civilian and military leadership experience was also an intriguing aspect to their work together. I reached out to them to talk about the important subjects raised in the book.



How Leaders Effectively Use Power

How do leaders effectively use power?

It’s important to acknowledge that leadership involves the use of power to affect results. In fact, a leader is deemed successful or unsuccessful based on the magnitude and consistency of results achieved. As a leader grows in effectiveness and influence, the more power they are given to, potentially, affect more results. The leaders we admire most, and the ones we consider to be most noble, are those who use and distribute power in a way that best serves the interests of the people and teams they are charged with leading. The challenge is, though, as a leader grows in power, the more susceptible they become to the trappings of power. Emperor Palpatine, who was Darth Vader’s mentor and master in the Star Wars movies, said, “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it…even the Jedi.”

For example, in their annual report, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners found that of the 2700 cases of fraud across more than 100 countries, perpetrators who had worked at their organizations for more than 10 years caused six times as much financial damage (over the median loss) than fraudsters who had worked there less than one year. One interesting contributing factor is that often as a person rises through the leadership ranks, they become subject to less direct oversight, and it becomes more tempting and easier to hide crimes. In other words, when leaders abuse their power it is often because they’re convinced they won’t get caught.



Signs of Misuse of Power

What are some of the signs of a leader who is misusing that power?

leadership killer book jacketOne of the signs was suggested to us by Patrick Decker, the CEO of Xylem, a water solutions and technology company. When someone gets promoted, do they “grow or swell.” He pays attention to the behaviors that start to show up. Does the new leader sponge up as much learning from others as possible? Do they get inquisitive? Do they ask for help and guidance? Do they show humility and solicit the input of others? Do they dedicate themselves to developing their direct reports, empowering them, and creating opportunities for development? Or does their ego start to take over? Do they get territorial, focus too narrowly on their own objectives and forget about the big picture, or become jealous of their peers’ successes? Do they use intimidation as a shortcut to getting people to move? Decker says, “Swelling is how you can tell when new leaders are letting power go to their heads, and the surest sign that a leader is headed for trouble.”

In The Leadership Killer we boil it down to this question for the reader: Do you want to lead or rule? Leadership is focused on serving others, rulership is about having people serve you.



Talk about the line between arrogance and confidence. What makes an arrogant leader?

In John’s work as a naval officer, and Bill’s work with corporate leaders, combined with our days as college athletes, we know that self-confidence matters a great deal. People want to follow leaders who are confident in their direction and capabilities, and can make a decision. We also want to follow leaders who know who they are and are comfortable in their own skin. But there’s a point at which confidence can slip into overconfidence. In the book we dust off an old Greek word, hubris, which means “dangerous overconfidence” and “exaggerated pride.”

Pick up your local newspaper on any given day, and you’re bound to see another leadership “fail” story about a corporate, military, political, sports, or religious leader who put their entire careers and reputation at stake by doing something shockingly self-sabotaging and un-leaderlike. John and I highlight many of these stories in the book, and when you get to the root cause of the fail, it nearly always comes down to arrogance. The bigger the ego, the more dangerous a leader becomes to him or herself, and to the people being led.



How to Practice Humility

How do leaders practice humility? What are the signs of a humble leader?

In the book we provide these tips for gaining and demonstrating humility:

  1. Ask QuestionsDon’t pretend you know everything. You don’t. So, don’t be afraid to ask questions that might reveal your ignorance about a subject. Asking questions is the best way to show that you don’t have all the answers, which others will appreciate.
  2. Show Your Warts: People want to be led by leaders who are seasoned and scarred, because that’s how wisdom is gained. Young professionals, especially, need to know about the mistakes you’ve made and the “do overs” you wish you could have. They need to know that even good leaders screw up.
  3. Surround Yourself with People Who Are Smarter Than You: Too many leaders default to hiring the least offensive job candidate. Instead, hire people who will lift everyone’s game, including your own. Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
  4. Walk the Deckplates: During John’s time as a naval officer, he came to see the value of walking down from the bridge to where the work was happening. He calls it “walking the deckplates.” The folks closest to the work need to know you’re not out of touch with the realities and challenges of the work. Not only will they appreciate the access to you, they’ll give you practical insights and ideas that will strengthen your leadership influence…and make you smarter.
  5. Open Yourself Up to Feedback: How will you ever know if you’re a good leader if you don’t get feedback from the people you’re leading? Send an email to your boss, a few peers, and all your direct reports asking them three things: 1. What do they see as your leadership strengths? 2. What suggestions do they have for improving your leadership? 3. What resources can they recommend to leverage your strengths and help improve your leadership?
  6. Say “Thank You” Sincerely and Often: It’s arrogant to not acknowledge the good work of those who are actively contributing to your success. If you’re one of those leaders who thinks, “Why should I thank them for what they’re getting paid to do?” then you are exactly the person who needs to say “thank you” more often!



Authors Bill Treasurer and Captain John R. Havlik

How to Avoid Arrogance

How do leaders stay grounded and avoid hubris and arrogance?

Ah, this is really the central question. Our three tips are:

  1. Lead Yourself First: You can’t effectively lead others until you effectively lead yourself. Commenting on the importance of self-governance, our friend, vice admiral John Ryan, U.S. Navy (retired) and current president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, says, “Without self-regulation, genuine humility, and learning agility, leaders will slip into hubris and excellence cannot be sustained.”
  2. Serve Others: When everyone is deferring to you and treating you special, the world can get a little you-centric. It’s good for a leader to “get out of yourself” every now and then. One way to do that is to devote some time to volunteering with an organization that doesn’t accentuate your own specialness. Serving holiday meals at a shelter, coaching at-risk youth, becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister are all great ways of taking the focus off of yourself and putting it on others.
  3. Deputize a “Check”: Every leader needs to have at least one person whose job it is to hold up the mirror and call out the leader when he or she is behaving out of synch with their values or principles. Kristie Kenney, a former colleague of John’s, and a former U.S. ambassador to three countries, considers having a check to be critically important. She points out that when you’re an ambassador, people are constantly deferring to you and agreeing with your sentiments, and all that ego-massaging can cloud your vision. Deputizing a person who won’t spoil or pamper you, and who has permission to give you a strong dose of truth, is essential to ego-management.


For more information, see The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance.


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