What is the cost of saying, ‘The Emperor has no clothes?’ CEO, Illness of Leadership: ARROGANCE.
Eugene Sadler-Smith, Professor of Organizational Behavior and author of the book that provides the basis for our topic today, defines arrogance as destructive and cites it as the cause of tragedy. He proposes that arrogant people have false ideas about their abilities. Arrogant people are known for taking a condescending attitude towards advice and criticism from others, being associated with inflated self-evaluation, poor judgment, exaggerating successes, and minimizing failures. I say; the starting point of this is pride. Today, our journey to evil starts by the saying, “I am proud, we are proud,” which every orator repeats in every lectern.
As you know, pride means self-conceit and arrogance means seeing yourself as superior to others. The remedy is to tell the truth! But our customs say that not every truth is to be spoken everywhere! They find this utterly audacious. Anyway, these are customs and they change over time. Don’t you think the time for change has already arrived, youngsters?
Today I will talk to you about the book Hubristic Leadership, that is, Arrogant Leadership. Its author is Eugene Sadler-Smith, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, his research area is arrogance and his articles on this subject have been published in many international peer-reviewed journals (1).
The author defines arrogance as destructive and shows it as the cause of the tragedy. He suggests that arrogant people have wrong ideas about their abilities.
Arrogant people are known for taking a condescending attitude towards advice and criticism from others, associated with inflated self-evaluation, poor judgment, exaggerating successes and minimizing failures. The food for arrogant leadership is previous achievements and accolades. The leaders’ intoxication with power and exaggerated belief in their strengths and abilities cause them to exaggerate their own truths and minimize their mistakes. As a result, they harm themselves and their businesses financially and in terms of reputation. In business life and politics, an arrogant leader can cause turmoil. Is it only in community life? Of course not, from the elder brother’s dominion at home, the upper class at school, even some teachers, headman to apartment manager in short the majority of those with power!
The author aims to understand the characteristics and causes of arrogant leadership and to explain how to avoid its destructive consequences. With examples, he adopts the motto of understanding what went wrong for businesses under the leadership of arrogant leaders by researching it from various angles. The author’s primary concern is how to identify individuals especially among politicians and leaders with Hubris syndrome and avoid its harmful consequences. For these purposes, he deals with the subject with an interdisciplinary approach using different perspectives. He has conducted a study with many scientific researches that reveals the reasons for the concept of hubris, which is discussed especially regarding leaders.
Meanwhile, arrogance has become a very popular topic. Very recently, the book titled Don’t you Know Who I Am? – The History of Arrogance, which describes arrogance similar to the issues I am talking about today, has been translated from Finnish into Turkish. If you like this subject and want more examples, I recommend that you read Don’t You Know Who I Am? – The History of Arrogance (2).
But what is the definition of a good leader? If arrogant leadership is bad leadership, how can good leadership be defined? It is possible to get some tips and advice on this subject from this book.
The first of these; is to have a positive attitude, a forward-looking mindset, not be afraid to compete and make decisions, to try and dare to pick up and move on even after defeats.
Latter; to know what one is doing, to be conscious of his/her own field no matter what the job is.
Third; belief in teamwork. Teamwork is critically important on many issues. Successful businesses don’t believe in the stars; they believe in the team and the purpose that brought them together. Therefore, a team should be aware that it is like a family, they should support each other and everyone should be aware that they are part of the team.
Fourth; good work is rewarded. Thus, everyone shares successes together, and at this point, employees can think like bosses because they protect the culture of the structure they belong to.
The fifth; is to do the right thing. “Actually, the good guys win!” says the writer. Honest and quality people always turn to the right thing. When in doubt, what is true must be identified and implemented.
Hubristic leadership became a more discussed issue, especially in the United States, after US President Donald Trump’s management attitudes. For this reason, the role of arrogance in political leadership gained importance for researchers.
But despite its relevance and importance in business and politics, arrogance is still an ongoing field of leadership and management research when compared to deeply rooted leadership issues such as “charisma” and “narcissism.”
The common traits of charismatic, narcissistic, and arrogant leadership are that they are all linked in different ways to the dark and destructive aspects of leadership. The behavior of disruptive and, by definition bad leaders can reflect varying levels of personal charisma, narcissism, and arrogance. The reason why one aspect is more dominant than the other can be explained by individual and contextual reasons.
The most striking point here is that such leaders are overconfident in their own abilities, intoxicated with power, praise and success, so to speak. As a result, they have an unwavering belief that the results of their actions will be successful in any situation, so they tend to underestimate and devalue the ideas of others. And thus, they pave the way for harmful, devastating consequences.
A mythological story frequently told in the book for hubristic leadership is the story of Icarus. The story of Icarus in Greek mythology influenced people and made them think. According to the author, this is the best-known myth, which contains counsel on arrogance and excessive pride. Using innovative technologies (like the wax wings and feathers of Icarus), the heroes make fatal mistakes, inviting disastrous consequences, by exaggerating their ability to control events. Another interpretation of this myth is that Daedalus advised his son to avoid not only flying too high but also to avoid flying too low, to take the middle path. As American businessman Warren Edward Buffett put it, balancing arrogance and humility should be the golden rule of the world’s most successful investor.
From a historical perspective, the author considers that the decision of leaders to engage in armed conflict with other nations is one of the most important issues. Arrogant political and military leaders are so misled by their own confidence and ambition that they overestimate their chances of success and fail to anticipate bad consequences. And while the consequences of arrogant leadership in business can be seriously detrimental to organizations, the results from arrogance in armed conflict (such as war) are disastrous.
Biological and Neuroscientific Approaches
In studies in the field of neuroscience, the arrogance paradox shows that the characteristics that contribute to the rise of leaders, such as empathy, cooperation, transparency, justice and sharing, disappear when individuals gain power and even turn into behaviors such as selfishness, thoughtlessness, and greed. It has been observed that individuals with high power are worse at recognizing the emotions of others and have difficulty empathizing.
When arrogant leaders are intoxicated with power, they think of their own interests rather than the interests of their relatives. The power and the accompanying lack of empathy leads to stereotyping. The hubrist (the arrogant person) becomes so self-focused: knowledge about others can only be valuable if it works for him. Risky behaviors are often undertaken in anticipation of rewards, and financial rewards seem particular to be drivers of risk-related behavior.
Now Coming to Hubris Syndrome
The idea of Hubris Syndrome was born out of the curiosity of Lord David Owen, a politician, in the mental health of political leaders,. The significance and distinctiveness of Owen’s contribution are that he is both a senior political leader and a physician specialized in mental health.
The criteria used to detect the symptoms of Hubris Syndrome: behaviors that show narcissistic tendencies by using their own power to achieve victory, making promises to others, self-glorifying through messianic speeches and overconfident, and contempt for the opinions of others, suggest the existence of this syndrome.
In addition, Owen and colleagues excluded Hubris Syndrome if the abnormal behavior observed was due to another possible medical or psychiatric cause (for example, hypomania, bipolar disorder, depression, neuropathy, trauma, drug or alcohol use). This criterion has resulted in the exclusion of some potential candidates for Hubris Syndrome among political leaders.
For example, former British prime ministers and politicians Churchill, Owen, and Davidson are excluded from Hubris Syndrome despite their arrogant characteristics as they suffer from major depressive disorders. Similarly, the US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, although displaying arrogant traits, also suffered from bipolar disorder.
Hubris Syndrome has mainly been studied in the context of political leadership. Management and leadership researchers have also used this syndrome to understand CEO and corporate arrogance. The Hubris Syndrome approach is being developed by bridging neuroscientific and behavioral perspectives.
One head of the UK government that was unarguably arrogant in Owen’s view was former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair came to power overwhelmingly in 1997 and had many notable successes as a leader but was eventually denounced for his support of George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq.
According to Owen, leaders, by the nature of their duties, live in isolation from everyday life, largely cut off from friends, if not family, and exposed to infidelity or betrayal. With that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that some political leaders and CEOs sometimes succumb to negative moods, personality disorders or lability, and even mental illnesses, while some leaders turn into “functional psychopaths,” being so intoxicated with power that this has a detrimental effect on their interpersonal relationships and performance..
In addition, not only power but also how the environment treats a strong leader, that is, the system and customs, play an important role. As successful leaders gain the favor of the environment and become proud, they become arrogant thanks to us and think that everything they do is right and that they are the best option. You know, they are not wrong, as you look at the examples in history.
More generally, behavioral researchers have come to consider overconfidence, overzealousness, and over-optimism (for example, unrealistic optimism and unrealistic ambitions) as sources and manifestations of a more general active bias and margin for error in organizational decision-making. Overconfidence, excessive ambition and excessive optimism, combined with pride, arrogance, and contempt for the advice and criticism of others, create arrogance and, as we know, arrogance is a danger to both individuals and organizations.
Trust is an invaluable managerial trait. Trust in the manager enables organizations to do things they would not normally do and to turn to new, innovative technologies. On the other hand, arrogantly overconfident managers often make decisions that destroy the value of the business, even if they do not set out to be destructive and act according to prudent management principles. Their extremely wrong estimates of their abilities may be leading them down this path.
Another overconfidence fueling executive’s arrogance is the celebrity status which has begun to permeate the upper echelons of popular business culture. Celebrity can often be a dramatic rise and then fall, jointly created between sensitive audiences and the media, and when arrogance is involved, drama can turn into a tragedy.
Entrepreneurs are people who take significant risks in pursuit of business success. They need to be confident, ambitious, and optimistic when deciding on a new venture. High self-confidence has many advantages; for example, it can be useful in persuading others to be enthusiastic about participating in a business venture project and can inspire, motivate and reassure employees. However, the uncertainties, risks, and gains encountered must also involve a delicate balance between confidence and overconfidence, ambition and over-ambition, and optimism and over-optimism. Crossing the border could ultimately spell the end of a promising business venture.
For example, James Dyson built more than 5000 unsuccessful prototypes before finding the right design for the bagless vacuum cleaner. Dyson had to rely on his partner’s income to survive after his invention failed to gain traction in the British market. The royalties helped fund a research facility and a factory in England; unique bagless vacuum cleaners finally achieved worldwide success.
This example proves the success of determination and perseverance. But it is known that the road that leads you to success will not take you further if you do not take a new path equipped with innovations.
In advanced, high-quality leader-member relationships, according to the “dual link” theory, followers are trusted by the leader and mutual exchanges and interdependencies are developed. The centrality of reciprocity and trust in a relational-type approach is a useful idea in helping to understand how political leaders and CEOs develop special bilateral relationships. In arrogant leadership, a special type of relationship develops between the leader and a particularly reliable follower.
Could similar things have happened in our recent history? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Susking succinctly addressed the “Bush-style” in an article in the New York Times shortly after the invasion of Iraq: “He truly believes he is on a God-given mission. Absolute belief like this suppresses the need for analysis. Everything about faith is to believe without a proof.”
Research shows that arrogance is more likely to emerge in complex, uncertain, and dynamic environments because these conditions create opportunities for enhanced leader discretion, unlimited improvisation, and managerial oversight. The leader no longer needs to listen to anyone or to any advice on what not to do. With overconfidence, the arrogance of moral righteousness, and religious certainty, the leader appears unaware of alternatives and insensitive to the possible consequences of his actions. The danger posed by arrogant leadership ; increases in volatility, times of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
An example from my life, I became the general manager of enterprises in 1986. But there was also a commercial general manager (my brother-in-law) and the boss (my father) was at work. I mean, it was actually a test of let’s see how well he will do. Then there was no such customs like sending flowers or congratulating. An acquaintance came. He said, this is an empire and you are the heir. I was amazed. The man will seduce me. I marked him immediately and never saw him again. Don’t I know who I am?
Paradox and Operational Approaches
The author ends his book with a practical question in the final chapter: If arrogant leadership can push a leader or an organization into rapid decline, how can leaders recognize this and avoid failure?
This chapter examines arrogant leadership from two interrelated perspectives; paradox theory and process perspective. These two perspectives help us understand the relationship between the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and the excesses and shortcomings of leaders’ abilities.
Arrogant leaders, by being overconfident, not only hasten their own downfall and death but can also harm others and have far-reaching devastating consequences. Organizations governed by arrogance follow a similar pattern of behavior. Examples of business failures show that the factors driving success can lead to the downfall of once-respected successful leaders when taken to dangerous extremes by overconfidence, excessive ambition, arrogance, contempt, and pride. Looking at arrogant leadership from the perspectives of paradox theory and process philosophy can help us better understand that arrogance can sometimes drive highly successful leaders and businesses toward self-initiated destruction.
Leadership, communication, flexibility, commitment, and openness are considered good things attributed to strong leaders. But how can these strengths produce failures?
Arrogant leadership is a paradox of strengths versus weaknesses. Abundance is interpreted as unconditionally good, and in such an environment, it is not possible to have a balance with the understanding of “enough is as good as a feast” In this context, arrogance appears as a form of perversion that leads to extremism in various ways; it is a lack of self-confidence, ambition, and indeed humility and is associated with contempt, arrogance and disrespect; It is excess of leader behaviors such as determination or courage, or organizational abilities such as innovation and flexibility and overconfidence and excessive ambition weaken the leader.
When the strengths of the leader or business, which are the reasons for success are over-extended—overconfidence, recklessness, and contempt become the cause of failure. Leaders have free will, so they are willfully overconfident, reckless or condescending and they overextend their authority and engage in destructive behavior unwillingly and unintentionally complicit and be responsible for the harm.
Can we assume that arrogance can be avoided? This is similar to the use of preventive medicine and is based on the assumption that the early signs of a disease are much easier to treat than the later stages. Five different approaches are proposed by the author that aims to detect and control the early onset of arrogance in organizations and institutions: 1- identifying linguistic indicators, 2- establishing a highly credible organization against arrogance, 3- better management and regulation, 4- avoiding an arrogant organizational culture, and 5- limitation of executive fees.
One of the challenges faced by researchers working on the topic of arrogance, along with colleagues investigating other negative connotations such as narcissism is, unsurprisingly reaching hubristic people and narcissists. This becomes even more difficult when trying to reach hard-to-reach groups such as executives or prime ministers at the top of organizations and institutions.
The words people choose to use and the way they use them, consciously or unconsciously, provide researchers with a distinctive and relatively easily accessible diagnostic and psychological indicator of an individual’s mental, social, and physical condition. The study of language as a manifestation of internal psychological states dates back to Freud, at least the idea that an unintentional slip of the tongue can reveal one’s hidden intentions through seemingly, visible linguistic errors. It is very meaningful in this context that researchers quickly examine linguistic patterns in leaders’ speeches during political campaigns.
Even the prophets, whom Lord had forgiven all their sins, used to repent and prayed for forgiveness every day. When asked why, they would say, “Should I not be a grateful servant?” Adopting this behavior, inculcating oneself with prayer, and repeating it daily can be a solution.
In businesses, on the other hand, it is necessary to benefit from all methods such as open-transparent communication, collecting suggestions, consultation meetings, what we did wrong and what we learned, 360-degree feedback, OKR and KPI management.
At the end of the book, the author generally starts from the Greek concept of “Parrhesia”; that is, he offers freedom of expression, which is to say everything clearly and correctly, as a solution. Freedom of expression is put forward as an antidote to save a family, a company, or a country from the harms of arrogant administration. According to the famous philosopher Foucault; What is spoken in Parrhesia is true because the speaker knows that it is true. In addition, the speaker has the moral qualities necessary to know and communicate that truth to others. The proof of the speaker’s sincerity is the courage to say something dangerous. But does the speaker choose to expose his life to threat and danger? This must be a very difficult option; it doesn’t have much of an application anyway, right?! There is a well-known proverb: Anyone who tells the truth is expelled from nine villages.
I say; the starting point of this is pride. Today, our journey to evil starts by the saying, “I am proud, we are proud,” which every orator repeats on every lectern. As you know, pride means self-conceit and arrogance means seeing yourself as superior to others. Pride is the belief in one’s own superiority and arrogance is the desire to impose this conviction on others. Pride: originates from within and is excessive self-respect, while arrogance is the desire to achieve this respect from the outside (3).
As I mentioned above, if you want more historical examples of how a vain feeling like arrogance gives birth to wars, disasters, hatred, corporate failures, and big failures, I suggest you take a look at the book The History of Arrogance. I really liked the original cover, so let me share it with you on this occasion.
(1) Sadler-Smith E. (2020). Hubristic Leadership, Sage, 204 p.
(2) Turenen, A. (2022). History of Arrogance: Do You Know Who I Am?
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