Arrogance in Leadership

For decades, experts have touted the advantages of humble leadership. Humility draws people to trust, follow and perform in ways no other leadership trait can. The executive world has been given so many case studies and success stories to make it virtually impossible to refute the power of humility in leadership.

Yet more than ever, employees raise complaints about the chronic levels of arrogance in their leaders. Studies show growing trends of employee dissatisfaction, disengagement and turnover due to leadership arrogance. Arrogance at top corporate levels is statistically responsible for startlingly high failure rates in teamwork, efficiency, goal achievement and profitability. One of the top, most disdained leadership traits reported in surveys is arrogance, indicating the prevalence of the problem.

Somewhere lies a disconnect between theory (which is generally accepted) and practice. Human nature plays a key role in this disconnect, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Fortunately, there are ways for leaders to recognize arrogant tendencies and do away with them. Failure to do so typically spells the failure of a career.

The Nature of Arrogance

As with many personality shortcomings, arrogance can be expressed in subtle or blatant ways, and everything in between. Some behavior takes time to assess to see if it is attributed to arrogance. Other behavior screams arrogance from the outset, leaving no doubt about the nature of the leader’s style.

Lesser forms of arrogance come disguised as rudeness, inconsideration, disrespect or coldness. Employees subject to subtle arrogance experience having their ideas or requests ignored, being left out of conversations or having their work redone by someone else. These slights signal to the employee that they are not considered acceptable or good enough. The leader may be trying to put them in their place or indicate that they need to get on the bandwagon (or perhaps out the door).

Subtle arrogance can be general and not directed at anyone in particular. Small inconsiderations by a leader demonstrate a lack of appreciation—or even acknowledgement—in the value of others. Interrupting people as they’re speaking, not returning a greeting or communicating personal information through technology rather than in person are all ways leaders arrogantly devalue their people.

Most employees can tolerate subtle arrogance, especially if it is directed at everyone. Though they don’t like it, people often learn to adapt to it, accept it as one of the unfavorable aspects of their job and keep going. Recognizing subtle arrogance in others and depersonalizing makes it tolerable. However, blatant arrogance is another matter. This goes beyond rudeness to reach harsh and unbearable levels. Blatantly arrogant leaders yell and insult people. They flaunt their power and don’t consider the wreckage they leave behind. Their pressing need is to unleash their frustration or anger, where other people are merely objects of vented abuse.

Blatantly arrogant leaders don’t just simply devalue their people, they hurt them. Temper, anger, audacity, egotism and disloyalty are weapons in the blatantly arrogant leader’s arsenal. They are self-focused on what their position of privilege allows them to do. Their high-handedness breaks the rules of conduct to get things done their way and in their time. Such contemptuousness wreaks fear, resentment and outrage.

Unlike subtle arrogance, the blatant form is intolerable for all employees save for those who are trapped and have nowhere else to go. Don’t think the blatantly arrogant leader doesn’t know who these people are. These unfortunate souls are typically targets who receive “special” treatment. People do not stand for blatant arrogance, and if Human Resources cannot address the problem satisfactorily, they are gone in short order. Life is too short to endure blatant arrogance in a leader.

Some leaders recognize their problem, and some don’t. Neither have an excuse for continuing an arrogant treatment of their people. Due to the nature of arrogance, employees generally have little hope of addressing it with their leader. However, an experienced executive coach can aid a leader in discovering and dealing with arrogant tendencies.

What Fuels Arrogance

Our culture has a large role in the development and encouragement of leadership arrogance. Human tendencies to desire power, prestige, perks and privilege are fueled by a culture that values these things. We are trained from an early age to focus on what we can take from life rather than what we can give. This encourages the quest for the highest level of power to be in the best position to be takers.

Whether it is in business, politics or social life, history shows that egotists are rewarded more than humble leaders, at least from an observable standpoint. Prideful, forceful, outgoing and brash behavior seem to permit greater levels of advancement than humility. Leaders with these traits are seen as more admired, revered and feared due to their ability to take charge and get things done. The fallout behind the scenes, where people pay a high price, is generally overlooked. The big accomplishments drown out the detriments.

Arrogance is born from these influences, where leaders feel privileged and free to do as they wish. Because of their positions and accomplishments, they go unchallenged and unquestioned. A mindset develops that they operate under a different set of rules and can take liberties others cannot. Their behavior, especially with how they treat others, is often granted an exceptional status, where the ends justify the means.

The culture also admires ego and the ability to control the world around you. Those who have command are regarded as impressive and important. As described in the HBR article by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership, importance feeds on itself, magnifying the effect in an upward spiral. Young aspiring professionals are being taught and trained, both in school and on the job, to reach the highest level of importance possible in order to be able to tell others what to do: to be “in charge”.  Arrogance is the natural outcome from someone who believes they deserve to be in charge. This is seen as a fulfilling purpose and everything else is simply less important.

Another cultural influence on the prevalence of leadership arrogance is the competitive nature of business. It is commonly believed that to survive on today’s battleground for market share and profits the leader must be tough, aggressive and ruthless. Boldness, notoriety and arrogance are the tactics used to gain the upper hand and be victorious. Most business settings have come to expect this, allow for it and endure it within the ranks.

An HBR article by Bill Taylor on leadership arrogance points out that many view life in business as competitive by nature, requiring an aggressive approach not only with the outside world but within the company walls. Everyone is in the trenches together, and arrogance becomes a “useful” tool to keep the internal machinery running.

Softness doesn’t seem to get it done, at least not in the minds of many leaders today. Humility is viewed as weakness. It draws images of inferiority and being subservient. Today’s talent is raised with these notions, a carry-over from generations past. Unfortunately, this is tragically misguided. A qualified executive coach can help sort through leadership myths and get to the truth about how people are successfully managed.

Breaking the Arrogance Mold

Overcoming arrogance is a matter of overcoming powerful paradigms in corporate culture. Leaders generally cannot sort through this themselves. Engrained for too long, arrogance has become second nature. Their environment supports old-school thinking, and blind spots keep certain realities hidden. Help comes from another pair of eyes that can see what’s happening: the eyes of a trained executive coach.

A leader who’s ready to address interpersonal difficulties in their role can turn to a trusted coach to get a sense of what the issues are. This is the most critical step for an arrogant personality. Taylor writes that arrogance typically rejects the notion of interdependence and the reliance on others for assistance or wisdom. However, leaders benefit greatly by breaking one the most powerful paradigms: the belief that strength is best portrayed by personal independence, to be smart enough and capable enough not to need guidance from anyone else.

This is a false strength, where a facade hides an insecurity of self-image and the fear of what others think, based on the premise that needing help shows weakness or unworthiness. History has shown that the most successful, most admired leaders are the ones who admit they need assistance and get it. This is true strength founded on a confidence and positive outlook that overcomes insecurity and public opinion.

Getting help is a leadership strategy that makes the best use of available resources to achieve the best results. It’s smart, tactical, courageous and bold. Humility, contrary to cultural views, is the strongest position to lead from. A qualified coach can instill these concepts and encourage arrogant leaders to break their crippling pattern.

Another paradigm needing to be overturned pertains to how employees respond to leadership behavior. The old-school mentality of power and control is outdated and damaging. People no longer tolerate those conditions and use their feet to escape them. A telltale sign of arrogant leadership is the rate of employee turnover.

People want several key things from their leader: consideration, support, encouragement and security. Arrogance subverts each of those. People engage their duties when they are cared for and valued, when their efforts are purposeful and appreciated. The leader and the entire organization benefit from an engaged, willing and healthy staff, who can rise above any challenge as a team when nurtured properly. Executive coaches know there is no better incentive to reverse an arrogant leadership personality than that.

Visionary Vulnerabilities

We live in an age of remarkable products and services from inventive thinkers with lofty ideas. These visionary leaders, who don’t think or work like anyone else, have started businesses based on novel concepts, and those whose achievements greatly impact society are afforded special status.

Employees often flock to these visionaries’ companies, hoping the future will offer prosperity within a corporate culture that promotes free thought, excitement and cutting-edge innovations. But some visionary leaders can be difficult bosses whose brainstorming and idealistic tendencies frustrate employees and create career obstacles.

As the term implies, “visionary” leaders like to walk among the clouds, devoting themselves to the future, the impossible and the things that could be. Unfortunately, businesses must be run with both a widescreen view and in-the-trenches focus, so pure visionaries with only big-picture mindsets are vulnerable to losing track of their enterprises.

While everyone admires visionary thinking, too much of it creates a dangerous imbalance. Fortunately, visionaries can learn effective ways to keep their companies healthy and productive.

Forwardly Focused

Visionary leaders are bent on taking things to the next level, solving the unsolvable problem, and developing something unprecedented or revolutionary. They passionately blaze uncharted trails. While such ambition is worthy, pure visionaries tend to be interested only in conceptualizing business ideas, and they often fail to involve themselves in the execution stages. Their brains are fast-thinking, idea-generating machines, with each concept analogous to a sheet of paper quickly torn from a thick pad.

Is your mind camped on the “what ifs?” of your business, while other issues are pushed aside? Do you wish you could devote all your time to brainstorming activities while someone else handles the other major responsibilities on your plate?

If you’re a visionary leader, you have many ideas racing through your mind at the same time, each in a different stage of incompletion. One idea may progress to a certain point, only to be superseded by another. Some ideas will be abandoned after a few primary thoughts, while others will morph into concrete descriptions for your staff to pursue.

Visionary leaders are the conceptualizers. They rely on their tactical thinkers—the ones with practical know-how of processes, procedures, policies and planning—to turn ideas into reality. Can you relate to this scenario?

Noted psychotherapist and leadership consultant Dr. Beatrice Chestnut describes visionary leaders’ idealistic tendencies in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Visionaries enjoy thinking about what might be and how companies can improve. They’re excited by new ideas—primarily those that come from their own mind so they can maintain control.

Visionaries are strictly future oriented. The present isn’t interesting unless there’s room for improvement. They find their optimism and hope in the next chapter, and they see their role as enhancing lives by creating new possibilities. They love to think outside the box and push the envelope of what’s considered feasible.

Visionary leaders view circumstances through a cup-half-full filter, where negative thoughts are avoided and only positive outlooks are permitted. This helps feed their creative juices and blocks negative emotions that hinder them. Negativity deters the creativity visionaries need to feel purposeful and happy.

If you recognize some of these tendencies in yourself, you may be a visionary leader. And while you may greatly benefit your organization, your focus on future possibilities may distract you from critical responsibilities. This jeopardizes your operation and makes life harder for your staff because you’re likely neglecting the tactical aspects of business. A qualified leadership coach can help you assess your visionary tendencies and guide you toward a more balanced, healthy leadership style. The goal is not to quash your visionary approach, but to bring it into balance with your other responsibilities.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Visionary leaders have a positive impact on their organizations because they:

  • Dream optimistically, encouraging and supporting their people’s inventive activities.
  • Are always working on “the next big thing,” as Dr. Chestnut puts it. They want their organization to be a leader in its field, setting the pace for others to try and catch.
  • Develop great brainstorming skills that overcome challenges most leaders would deem infeasible.
  • Turn negatives into positives. More is always accomplished with a can-do approach, which lifts morale and feeds the visionary culture.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt, looking toward a positive outcome.
  • Are often sought after to create solutions, bringing notoriety and opportunity to their organization.

From a negative standpoint, visionary leaders can be overly idealistic and creative. Their focus on the future draws them away from important tasks. They:

  • Have too many ideas going at one time to properly prioritize, manage or execute.
  • Brush off negative concerns from their staff, avoid problematic issues and overlook warning signs or mistakes.
  • Find ways around roadblocks that impede their visionary process, often breaking the rules. Employees may then feel resentful and frustrated.
  • Lose interest in non-creative tasks and duties. They ignore everyday responsibilities when their ideas seem more compelling.
  • Prioritize activities based on what’s most fun for them.
  • Have blind spots that lead them away from the actions required to understand and address serious issues.
  • Are so unfocused that they fail to grasp current trends or the business climate, thereby hurting the company.
  • Have vague conceptual ideas that management cannot understand or appreciate.
  • Aren’t detail oriented and have difficulty performing accurate work, meeting commitments or completing assignments.
  • Think and speak so rapidly, caught up in their own little world, that they stop listening to others.
  • Have such a strong emotional need to dream that they take their company in the wrong direction. They unconsciously feed their personal needs more than those of the company.
  • Seek quick wins and disassociate from anyone who slows their creative process (with facts).
  • Fail to address problems they deem insignificant.

Strong visionary tendencies can render leaders inefficient and cause pain to those around them. While companies certainly need visionary thinkers, everyone must maintain the proper balance. The best leaders successfully juggle the present and future, focusing on the organization’s urgent needs and prioritizing them over tempting pie-in-the-sky ideas.

What Makes a Visionary Tick?

Understanding the visionary personality helps us forge productive business relationships.

The visionary’s mind runs far and fast. Ideas come naturally; the more unique, the better. The most active visionaries fashion ideas that interconnect and form a clever master plan.

Visionary leaders find joy in dreaming big. They’re drawn to considerable challenges, huge potential and foreseeable payoffs. They have “bright shiny object” syndrome, as Dr. Chestnut explains, and are distracted by the latest, greatest idea to come along. (More mundane ideas are shoved aside.) They become curators of unfinished ideas and plans.

Visionaries love learning and the freedom to use acquired knowledge. Corporate systems, procedures and processes that slow them down or interfere with their creativity are regarded as roadblocks. Visionary leaders resist limiting forces like rules, management decisions or protocol because creativity “requires” boundless autonomy. They see brainstorming as an imperative privilege, one that outweighs all others. It gives them a strong sense of fulfillment and purpose.

Visionaries require positivity to foster creativity. They actively avoid difficult or unpleasant experiences, sometimes at any cost. Past problems are overlooked or put behind them to maintain a rosy future picture. Current problems may never reach their radar screen. To the visionary, creation is the primary good that eclipses most corporate problems.

Leaders with visionary tendencies enjoy living in their imagination, where they can vividly see their dreams while remaining sheltered from the hardships of daily issues. They choose to see a world that reflects their hopes without real-world disappointments intruding.

Visionaries typically disrespect members of the management team who raise problems. Negative feelings make it difficult to cope on a daily basis, and they may feel ganged up on when management presses issues that require tough decisions. Tactical decisions, especially in tense situations, are not a visionary’s strong suit.

The idea phase is much more desirable than the processing phase, where resources are assigned, schedules and deadlines are issued, and implementation tasks are identified, Dr. Chestnut explains. Visionaries want to start the ball rolling and have others take it from there. Implementation plans are grueling for them, as the freedom to think and create seems stifled. The visionary feels imprisoned under these conditions.

Colleagues and executive coaches who understand visionary leaders’ propensities can help them recognize the difficulties they cause and work with them to adjust behavioral patterns. Healthy doses of perspective, concern and determination are vital.

Coaching Promotes Balance

Visionaries can inspire an entire organization to new heights and compel people to accomplish the seemingly impossible. But when taken to extremes, the negatives overshadow the positives. When too little attention is paid to daily business needs, all the bright ideas in the world cannot keep the ship from sinking. Executive coaches, supervisors and mentors must emphasize the consequences in ways that preserve enthusiasm.

Qualified executive coaches will help visionaries forge a healthier balance between creating and leading. Visionaries must come face to face with their blind spots and recognize how their obsession with envisioning is impeding organizational performance.

Time management is one of the primary areas requiring adjustment. Visionaries must understand that tactical leadership skills are equally as important as their visionary abilities. Coaching teaches them how to partition time and effort. Successful visionary leaders learn to ration dream time so other responsibilities are met. Limited time assigned to visionary work can be sufficiently rewarding.

Visionaries must also learn that others may not think as quickly as they do, Dr. Chestnut explains. Slowing the pace to accommodate others is an adjustment worth making. Creative ideas should be prioritized before investing staff time. Asking people to tackle multiple brainstorms is too overwhelming. Only selective ideas—not all—will be processed. Direct reports with tactical expertise can determine which ideas can be implemented; leaders should accept their reasoning.

Living up in the clouds robs visionaries of life experiences and rewards on the ground, Dr. Chestnut adds. They miss out on the relationships and adventures involved in running the company. True, tactical leadership can be painful, frustrating and wearisome. But instead of avoiding these feelings, out of fear or insecurity, visionary leaders should face them, grow professionally, and build character, skill and confidence. Great leaders are forged out of adversity, not pure pleasure. Ideas are implemented through relationships and engagement.

How to Work for a Visionary Leader

Visionaries are often distant and disconnected, so employees may wonder if their boss knows what’s going on. Employees should reach out and find ways to make a connection.

Employees who speak positively and confidently will find it easier to gain a visionary leader’s respect. Instead of citing problems, describe opportunities with solutions. Visionaries shun critical personalities. Consistently bringing problems to your boss will worsen conditions.

Showing appreciation for the visionary’s brainstorming skills builds trust. Leaders will respond with mutual appreciation and a willingness to listen to helpful ideas. Trusted employees can help visionary leaders see the things they need to see. Support leaders’ efforts to handle tactical duties.

Engaging leaders about their ideas further enhances the relationship. Express interest in the vision and help explain it in ways the staff can follow. Ask questions about specifics, applications and how the idea supports company activities. Visionaries will be better able to distinguish the more promising ideas from the mediocre. Help visionaries pick their battles.

Offer to assist with research, setting up meetings, or introductions to other experts. Stay close to brainstorming sessions to monitor excessiveness, and divert leaders to the tactical side, when needed.

Help visionary leaders form new habits relating to time management, operational skills and relationship-building. A well-rounded leader takes care of the business while dreaming about the future.