The Ladder of Arrogance (part 1 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

Do you have enough confidence without being overconfident? What differentiates the two, and how do you recognize the difference on a daily basis? Find out below!

“Confidence is golden; arrogance is toxic,” said Tish Squillaro, management consultant, putting a fine point on a big problem for leaders at every level. But while the difference is often described as a fine line; it’s not. It’s a ladder, what I call, the Ladder of Arrogance, one corporate ladder you don’t want to climb! The Ladder of Arrogance has these four rungs.

1. Confident – The state of being certain, decisive, deliberate and responsible

2. Overconfident – The condition of being confident to the point of occasionally losing perspective, dismissing evidence and advice, or lacking a clear awareness due to blind spots
3. Egotistical – The mindset of being self-centered to such a degree that the afflicted leader overlooks his impacts on others. The egotistical leader is not deliberately malicious but is preoccupied with vanity, boastfulness, fame and self-interest.
4. Arrogant – The state of believing one’s self to be superior to others, supremely capable in areas beyond one’s true competence, and being malicious or dismissive of others in the process, either by intent or impact.

On a recent visit to Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, I was reminded of just how important leadership is to people’s lives, and I discovered powerful examples of the Ladder of Arrogance in some of the general officers involved in the battle. Whether you’re a new manager or an experienced executive, it’s vital that you know the difference and prevent your ascent.

Rungs #1 and #2: Confidence and Overconfidence – Union General Gouvernour Warren and Confederate General Robert E. Lee
The first two rungs of the Ladder of Influencee are confidence and overconfidence, closely related but significantly different rungs on the climb to arrogance. As a leader, you need confidence to be successful. But if you aren’t aware of the difference between this and overconfidence, you’ll be on the second rung in a hurry! For example, at the Battle of Gettysburg, General Gouverneur Warren, Chief Engineer for the Army of the Potomac (and one of the heroes of the Battle of Little Round Top), exemplified confidence.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, Gen. Warren was on a mission to evaluate the Union lines for Gen. George Meade, the new Commander of the Army of Potomac, when he discovered a dire situation. As he approached the far left flank of the famous “fishhook” formation, Gen. Warren was shocked to find only a few signalmen occupying the high ground where there should have been thousands. Seeing evidence of a massive assault on this position just beginning by the Confederates, Warren took decisive action that certainly saved the Union Army from destruction.

On his own volition, Warren had the confidence to intercept and redeploy arriving reinforcements. By redirecting these reinforcements, Warren was countermanding his superior officers without having the formal authority to do so, sending them onto the vacated high ground instead of their original mission. His orders were received, briefly questioned, and then followed by other officers who were taking a similar risk by following different orders outside of their chain of command. Warren’s orders could have gotten him court-martialed for sending them and other officers court-martialed for following them. But instead, Gen. Warren’s actions helped save the Union Army. that day.

Warren demonstrated confidence by taking charge in an emergency, acting independently yet with a clear understanding of his role in the larger mission, and taking measured risks. A confident leader, no matter what level they might be, uses well-informed judgment to make decisions, weigh the implications, and take decisive action in the best interest of the organization, even in the midst of chaos.

On the other hand, overconfidence exists when a confident leader occasionally loses perspective, dismisses evidence and advice, or lacks clear awareness due to blind spots. This was exemplified at the Battle of Gettysburg by General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Prior to Gettysburg, Lee had just won a series of victories and used similar tactics with great success as those he was about to employ. Like many successful managers, he was emboldened by winning so consistently. Also, he was highly confident in his men, for example telling his wife that the Army was invincible “as long as they have good leadership,” and he was sure he should attack at this famous location. Moreover, he dismissed strong advice from his trusted corps commander, General James Longstreet, who recommended fighting a strategically defensive battle rather than an offensive one.

However, the biggest blind spot of Lee’s approach was clear on the third day of the battle when Lee sent his last reserve divisions into the famous uphill, extraordinarily long, and highly exposed attack known as Pickett’s Charge. About this decision, Gen. Longstreet had specifically warned, “General, I have been a soldier all my life…. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arranged for battle can take that position.”

After the failed maneuver, Lee met the few wounded survivors returning from Pickett’s Charge, apologizing to his men and taking personal blame for their losses and defeat. On this occasion, Lee had been overconfident because of his long string of successes, his strong faith in his men, and his strong Faith in Divine Providence. Lee and his Army paid the highest price for a blind spot that day. An overconfident leader lets his/her guard down at inopportune times, often based on past successes and blind spots.

Has this happened to you or another everyday leader you know. Do you have enough confidence without being overconfident in certain situations? What else differentiates confidence from overconfidence, and how do you recognize the difference on a daily basis?

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