Crossing the Line – Leadership Tips

Confident, effective leadership. It’s what we all aspire to, isn’t it?

When you were starting out, chances are you admired and sought to emulate an inspiring leader. Someone who exuded knowledge, competence and confidence. You wanted to work for that person and learn their secrets!

But then one day, you found yourself disappointed. That leader whose confidence and vision you found so inspirational turned out to be a bossy, preening narcissist. Even worse: he was a bully. Your desire to follow and emulate quickly became a desire to avoid. And you learned that to be effective, charismatic leadership requires much more than vision and the ability to communicate it.

How could you have been so wrong? You mistook arrogance for confidence.

It was an understandable error. But now that you’re a leader yourself, it’s critical that you familiarize yourself with the difference. Confident leaders inspire, motivate and engage. Arrogant leaders demotivate and disengage.

And there is a growing recognition on the part of both researchers and hiring managers that humility — the opposite of arrogance — is a desirable quality, both in workers and in leaders. Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, told the New York Times in an interview last year that one of the top qualities he looks for in employees is “intellectual humility. Without humility,” he said, “you are unable to learn.”

Humility, in other words, is actually a kind of confidence.

A humble leader considers the ideas of others. Confident in his own capabilities, he does not feel threatened by the possibility that someone else might prove him wrong. Rather, he has the confidence to step back and let others test their ideas.

Research supports the idea that humble people make good leaders. A 2012 study at the University of Seattle’s business school found that humble employees make better leaders not only because they are open to learning themselves, but because they foster learning in others. This, in turn, motivates employees to strive and improve.

Yet all too often, arrogance is tolerated, even applauded in the business community. Arrogant leaders appear to know what they are doing — and often, they get their way. Their approach leads, at first, to success.

But look a little more carefully and you will see the “trail of bodies” in their wake. Firings. Departures. Costly turnover. And once they begin moving in the wrong direction, arrogant leaders often fail to correct their course, because colleagues and employees are afraid to tell them the truth. Even when they do, arrogant leaders don’t listen.

Fight the “war” against arrogance.

To help business leaders become more humble, psychologists at the University of Akron devised the Workplace Arrogance Scale (WARS), in which employees rate their bosses on a series of actors. The survey is not intended to be used to punish or fire people, its authors caution; the goal is to help them improve.

The qualities WARS seeks to measure are instructive. They can help you to be sure your leadership style falls on the right side of the line between confidence and arrogance. Here are some of the behaviors the WARS creators agree are symptomatic of arrogant leadership.

An arrogant leader:

  • Makes decisions that affect others without listening to their input.
  • Belittles employees in front of others.
  • Behaves differently with subordinates than with supervisors.
  • Feels it’s unnecessary to explain their decisions to others. Arrogant leaders rely on authority as a rationale, because if they shared their reasoning they would open themselves up to being proven wrong.
  • Talks more than they listen.
  • Arrives late to meetings and doesn’t apologize.

A confident leader, on the other hand, will:

  • Seek out the opinions of those who will be affected by a decision, before making the decision. They recognize that they may not be aware of all the relevant facts, nor have a complete understanding of the affected employees’ perspectives.
  • Instead of belittling an employee with public put-downs, find a private moment to offer constructive criticism.
  • Show the same face to everyone, regardless of rank in the company.
  • Take the time to explain new decisions and changes in policy. They know that buy-in will be greater from employees who understand the rationale than from those asked simply to obey on the basis of greater authority.
  • Listen all the time. They know there is always plenty to learn from others.
  • Respect the time of others, even if they are the highest-ranked person in the room. They don’t need to assert authority by acting discourteous.

Our culture respects brassiness and swagger. It can be tempting to act accordingly, especially when you are unsure of yourself. So check your behavior from time to time and ask yourself: Am I a confident leader? One who can rally those around me to work for the good of the company, no matter whose ideas win out? Or am I arrogant, putting my company at risk by imposing my will on all those around me?

By asking yourself this honest question, and thinking about the criteria above, you’ll have taken the first step toward confident, humble leadership.