Self-assuredness is the enemy of leadership

Published by Peter on

Some executives rise to the top through sheer charisma, ruthlessness, or an insatiable drive to succeed. Others are propped up by pedigree, privilege, and personal networks. I’m sure you, like I, have worked with people who fit these categories.

Many executives, however, advance on their skill, knowledge, insight, and hard work. They are so good at their jobs that they just keep getting promoted. And they keep succeeding… until they don’t.

Part of that sudden change is the (tragically named, in my opinion) Peter Principle, which suggests that people rise to the level of their incompetence. That is, every time they do a good job, they get promoted, until they finally reach a level that is beyond their skill, and they rise no farther.

You can tell this has happened to someone when everyone around them quietly shakes their head and says, they’re in over their head this time.

I’ve witnessed this up close several times. I don’t think it’s happened to me yet, though I won’t risk doing a survey of people who have worked for me to find out. Ignorance is bliss, amirite?

There are, however, other ways that good leaders suddenly turn into terrible leaders. The one that’s on my mind this week: overconfidence.

Rising to the top builds self assuredness

I’ve coached and worked with hundreds of people—executives, managers, and individual contributors. While people at all levels express some amount of self-doubt, I’ve noticed a subtle trend.

Middle managers and individual contributors are more likely to undervalue and distrust praise that they get from their boss and others. Their self-doubt overpowers their self-confidence. While they may recognize their role in team wins and setbacks, they often downplay their contribution or inflate the contribution of others. They get stuck on the one bad thing they did and forget the 10,000 good things they did.

Senior managers and executives, however, take praise for granted. They are confident in their own value. They tend to see team wins as their wins, but they tend to see team setbacks as someone else’s fault. When things go well, it’s because “I’m a good leader and set my team up for success.” When things go poorly, it’s because “The members of the team aren’t performing well.”

It’s the nature of hierarchical systems that people at the top are assumed to be better at the job than the people they manage. After all, they kept being promoted, so they must be good. Seems logical. You don’t keep rising on the basis of confidence alone.

But confidence does increase the higher someone rises, until it can turn into shortsighted self assuredness.

Self assuredness entrenches blind spots

The higher someone rises, the more they believe they deserve it. The more highly someone thinks of themselves, the more highly they think of people who behave like them, and the less tolerance they have for people who behave differently.

I’m not talking about culture, clothing, language, and hairstyle. I’m talking about workstyle.

A commanding leader overvalues authority and charisma while undervaluing empathy and consensus. A fact-oriented leader overvalues research and information while undervaluing emotional intelligence. An empathetic leader overvalues people’s feelings while undervaluing grit and determination. A workaholic leader overvalues effort and self-sacrifice while undervaluing thoroughness and strategic planning.

Those are gross oversimplifications, of course, but they are directionally correct based on my 35 years of experience across many industries, organization types and sizes, and leadership structures.

The more confident a leader gets, the more they entrench in their own style. The more they entrench in their own style, the less tolerant they become of other styles. The less they tolerate other work styles, the more conflict and miscommunication their teams suffer.

All this time, the self-assured leader’s certainty in their own approach gets reinforcement from several quarters: like-minded peers, sycophantic subordinates, sympathetic friends and family, paperweight wisdom.

And as their certainty in their own approach grows, they start labeling anyone who works different from them with negative words: Uncooperative. Contrarian. Adversarial. Reluctant. Lazy. Unproductive. Insubordinate.

Without attention to this problem, it can eventually become impossible for the leader to discern between a simple difference in workstyle, and true insubordination or lack of productivity. They start losing good people who would, under more open-minded leadership, make the organization more dynamic, creative, and resilient.

Eventually, when their now one-dimensional organization starts faltering, they will be unable to understand why, and they will be unable to fix it. When pressure to improve gets really intense, they will double down on all the things that got them in trouble in the first place.

That’s how certain of their own approach they’ve become.

One real example (anonymized)

Carla, a high capacity, highly competent, dedicated executive, was driven to continually strive for more. Her projects were known for outperforming their goals, and her project teams consistently worked harder than other teams.

Carla’s drive came from a belief that there was always room for improvement. As soon as one project ended, she was charging into the next with even higher expectations. Her management loved this attitude, and they could always rely on Carla to get the job done.

When Carla was promoted from her project-based role to lead a small division of a big organization, she took her high-capacity attitude with her. Almost immediately, however, she faced resistance.

The division’s previous leader had been a strategic thinker, deliberate in decisions and careful in execution. His team had consistently returned strong and reliable results with few errors or setbacks. They were not known for innovation or flashy displays.

Shortly after Carla took over, it seemed to her like she had inherited a group of lazy, complacent workers who had never seen the fast pace she demanded. They complained about too many interruptions, a lack of strategic focus, and impossible schedules.

Carla was certain the team could do more; they had just never worked for a demanding leader before. All they really needed was to be inspired to take on more, achieve more, and dare more. Pick up the pace. Bring solutions, not excuses.

Every time Carla amped up her demands, the team seemed to dig in their heels. So she amped it up again. And again. Then one of the top leaders in her team left. And another.

Carla was unable to see that the team was neither lazy nor complacent, but that they were attuned to a workstyle that understood strategic focus, thorough planning, and predictability. Carla brought her own workstyle to the group: fast pace, action-first, try-and-iterate, grab at opportunity.

Right now, Carla is in the middle of her team’s transition, and it’s unclear to me which way she will decide to take her team. Will she work to adapt her leadership style to allow for a diversity of workstyles, or will she end up replacing more employees and homogenizing the team? It’s up to her, and time will tell.

Another real example (also anonymized, unrelated to the previous example)

David was a strategic thinker who lived by the motto, “Keep your head down so it doesn’t get shot off.” He was reluctant to make any decision unless it was ironclad, bulletproof, guaranteed, and unassailable. As such, he was thorough, careful, and deliberate in every decision, no matter how small.

David ran a small team that ran low-risk, data-oriented enterprise programs within a big company. His teams never had to innovate much, and as long as they kept producing bland results without causing any problems, he was consistently regarded as an effective manager.

Then when one of David’s peers suddenly left the company, that manager’s teams were reorganized under David. The other manager had been outgoing, charismatic, and a bit of an unapologetic loose cannon if we’re being totally honest.

David immediately set to work “getting them under control.” He had long thought that the other manager played too fast and loose with the rules and left too many variables unaccounted for. He thought the outgoing manager bordered on unprofessional. David was going to get the team in shape.

So, David rolled out a strategic planning process to all his new department heads, insisting that no new work be done until strategic planning had been completed. It was a thorough process, painstaking in identifying goals, resources, dependencies, risks, measurement processes, success metrics, budgets, and contingencies.

This did not go the way David planned. He anticipated all these documents rolling up into a coherent plan that he could manage to, but what he got back was a mishmash of questions, best guesses, incomplete information, and downright refusal to comply.

He was shocked because these managers were all successful and accomplished in their own right. He knew they could build a strategic plan. How hard was it? He could do it in his sleep. So the only logical conclusion was that they were intentionally undermining his authority.

David had been promoted to his level of incompetence (Peter Principle), but he was unaware of it. So he wielded his authority like a cudgel and forced compliance with threats of disciplinary action.

This also did not go the way David planned.

Instead, within a year nearly the entirety of the previous manager’s team had left the organization, the projects they ran languished in mediocrity, and David had lost a lot of his reputation as a reliable manager.

Overcoming self confidence

Both Carla and David were put in positions where their previously successful leadership style suddenly became ineffective. Both chose to entrench rather than adapt, and that had a profound effect on their organizations.

It’s hard to see your own blind spots. That’s why they’re called blind spots. It’s hard to overcome your own limiting beliefs. That’s why they’re called limiting beliefs. You can’t change your own behaviors if you can’t objectively observe them.

The very best leaders make a constant effort to shine light into their own blind spots. They actively look for data, insight, and opinion that challenges their firmly held beliefs. The more sure they are of their own answers, the more they try to ask, “What else could be true?”

This is why leaders need to value the people around them who will give them honesty rather than affirmation. People who will expand their perspective in ways the leader can’t.

It’s why every leader needs a coach. In fact, the higher a leader rises, they more they need that objective third party to help them see beyond their own limitations.

“The one thing people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them.”
– Eric Schmidt

I can help

Looking to be a better leader? Contemplating a career change? Struggling with a big life question? Want to write or publish a book? Thinking about retirement?

I can help. Hit me up for a free coaching session now.

Categories: Leadership


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