One of the reasons we follow great leaders is the strength of their convictions.
John Sculley followed Steve Jobs, leaving PepsiCo to join Apple in 1983, after Steve famously asked him, “Do you want to change the world or sell sugar water the rest of your life?” John rightly believed Steve was on a mission to change the world.
Great leaders ardently believe in a big idea and its power to make a difference. They have conviction and are able to rally people around them because of it.
We all love to be around people like that. They exude a confidence that’s inspiring and makes us believe, even if just for awhile, that anything is possible. And the more of us that are attracted to an idea, the more engaged we become. Soon a movement is born and we feel like we’re taking part in something important.
But often with success, a leader’s confidence can morph into hubris. When he start believing more in himself than the strength of the idea, he begins to think he’s infallible. In practice, he’s often wrong, but never in doubt.
The shift of a leader’s confidence in the strength of an idea to the strength of their own charisma erodes trust. Those who thought they were following a strong leader advancing a great idea soon discover that the idea is merely a cover for the leader’s own self-promotion. Few will follow such self-absorbed leaders for long. Even world-changing ideas will be quickly abandoned or re-emerge under new leadership. As John Ruskin put it, “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.” Sadly, one’s promotional aspirations can reduce a big idea to a very small package.
We’ve all been around people like that too. They leave a long trail of disappointed, and even angry, people who have suffered loss following their lead.
It’s easy to point a finger at the full-fledged narcissist leader as if it would never happen to us. But it’s a fine line between the confidence needed to inspire another and that which undermines the cause. An honest self-appraisal may help:
- When others don’t enthusiastically respond to my ideas, do I seek first to understand their perspective or is my first response to defend my idea or manipulate others to accept it.
- When I get upset, is it about the progress around the idea or because I believe others are not following my lead?
- Do I give others credit for advancing the cause or do I jealously guard the spotlight for myself?
- When considering new ideas, would others describe me as adaptable or entrenched?
Habitually and intentionally asking these questions and others like them can keep your confident leadership from going bad.
What are some other questions we should ask ourselves to steer clear of over confidence?