Arrogance in Leadership

  • 9 mins read

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.

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