How one-upmanship undermines leadership

Those who know me are often surprised to discover that I used to be a physics nerd. Back when I was pursuing a degree in that field a joke was circulating about two student physicists trying to impress the other at a party. To prove their intellectual superiority they launched into a game of one-upmanship, peppering their banter with increasingly absurd technical jargon. The joke, of course, was that their postulate about constructing an Einstein Rosen Bridge over the Dirac Sea made no sense to us real physics and math nerds.


I was recently reminded of that old joke during a conversation with friends. One of my sons, who was with us at the time, is preparing to go back to school. Naturally, the question came up: Which is more stressful, school or work? To me that was a no-brainer. Though I wasn’t particularly fond of school, I didn’t think the stress of being in college is anything like the stress of working for a living. Before I could respond, my friend offered that he always found school to be stressful. His response surprised me and I pondered whether he actually felt that way about it or if, instead, he was giving deference to my son who was about to return to that environment. In either case, I’m sure my son felt a little more important than he would have had he heard my response. Had I spoken, he might have decided to forego work altogether and become a professional student instead. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.

Reflecting on that conversation though, reminded me how important it is to give deference to others, especially as leaders in our homes and workplaces. As a leader, your words carry more weight than you might expect. While you might not think you are engaging in one-upmanship, your words very well might be putting another down, leaving them feeling unimportant.

One-upmanship undermines leadership and it takes countless forms. Consider the following scenario. A co-worker or subordinate tells you about an idea they have for a new offering or a way to improve the business. Do you hijack their idea by immediately countering with ways to improve upon it? Or, do you stake your claim of prior ownership by telling them you’ve had the same idea? Or, do you tell them that you and Big Cheese recently discussed that very same idea over a round of golf?

Any and all of those possibilities could be true. You might really have some great ways to improve their idea. You might actually have thought about it before they did. And, in fact, the idea might have come up during some discussion with a VIP. That these things may have happened doesn’t matter. What matters is whether your response leaves the other person more or less motivated to interact with you in the future.

The test of a great leader is not in how well they cultivate or promote an idea, but in how well they cultivate and promote others. Showing off your intellectual, relational, spiritual, or any other kind of prowess, is a form of self-promoting one-upmanship. In the words of King Solomon, “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly” (Proverbs 12:23).

What ways have you’ve seen one-upmanship undermine leadership?


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