Leadership: Arrogance watch

The essence of great leadership can be elusive. But there’s one human quality which, if it takes root, almost always delivers leader’s downfall – arrogance.
Arrogance is an otherwise gifted leader’s potential pitfall. The line that separates intelligence and arrogance is often fine. Spotting the transition from the positive exploitation of one to indulging the corrosive excesses of the other often happens insidiously.
Gifted leaders are frequently endowed with generous portions of self importance and sense of imperious assurance. Being smart, bright and clever leads to competence in many business skills. But, according to American organisational and management psychologist Hodges L Golson, these intellectual gifts help individual managers get used to being right, being perceived as good problem-solvers and being highly valued. “This leads to arrogance,” says Golson.
Intelligence and arrogance are two components of the major fundamental competencies critical to business, and of course political and other organisational success. They’re part of the intellectual and interpersonal (head and heart) competencies that rank along with integrity and intensity (gut and will) that are considered essential leadership attributes.
Golson suggests simple four-quadrant approach with brainpower on one axis and arrogance on the other, to explain the implications of the intersection of intelligence and arrogance. Individuals of low competence and low arrogance aren’t, for example, likely to rise to high executive rank without being related to someone in power.
Individuals of high competence and low arrogance invariably solve problems without being offensive or abrasive. “You want all of these folk you can get in an organisation,” he says. On the other hand, if personal insecurity is what spawns low level arrogance, the individual might need help to take initiatives to drive their solutions through.
Low competence and high arrogance individuals are downright dangerous. They don’t realise the limits of their ability and lack the good sense to ask for second opinion. If these characters don’t flame out early in their careers, their unfounded self confidence can propel them way beyond their abilities. “Then they take the organisation down unless they’re very lucky,” warns Golson.
Finally, there’s the highly interesting high competence, high arrogance sector. They’re interesting because of the competing forces of “great potential and great danger”. You’ve probably seen them about or read of their exploits. They are often successful, but simultaneously destructive to morale and relationships and, ultimately, the organisation. These leaders “win any individual battle but often lose the war”.
Why bring this up? Because, there seems to be bit of arrogance about at present and observant managers might learn from the lessons that follow. Call it study of arrogance in action. Note, for example, the collapse of construction company Mainzeal. The individuals captaining that particular ship seemed, according to popular belief, to have all the smarts. They just didn’t think it necessary to play by the rules of best practice management and governance.
Then there is the procession of once clever finance sector directors and executives now marching through the nation’s court rooms en route to spells in the cells or at least out of the nation’s board rooms for spell. Mind you, there’s few of them still operating out there – running companies, fighting off legal action and successfully deploying their “competencies” to, in one way or another, relieve unwise investors of their savings.
Arrogance is also infectious. Watch what happens to the cluster of individuals who linger too long in board or cabinet room. Politicians, often quite promising ones, are particularly susceptible. They stop listening and learning. Hubris, caused by loss of touch with reality, moves in to dictate the agenda.
Witness, for instance, our politicians’ recent decision to ignore critical aspects of the Law Commission’s overhaul of the Official Information Act. As former Prime Minister and Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer said, our politicians showed they were driven more by self interest than any consideration for the national benefit of greater public transparency.
The Government’s decision, in this instanced endorsed with the complicity of most of the other political parties, is born of arrogance. It is manifestation of self important and imperious assurance that politicians know best and the public need not be fully informed of the actions of the individuals who represent them. Political parties often fall victim to arrogance. Unlike in the commercial world, comeuppance invariably follows. It’s good time to observe the trek to the next election.
It is, as Golson says, “rare to find leaders with great intelligence and the humility to realise the limits of his or her competence”. Organisations need intelligent leaders with appropriate levels of confidence.
Humanity and insight are, however, equally important. But they can’t be taught or coached. M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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