The Ladder of Arrogance (part 3 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

Being proud (confident), “but not arrogant,” is the subject of this blog series, and as we’ve been discussing, there is more than a fine line between the two states. In the final installment, I look at the role of arrogance.

Successful leaders learn to strike an ambiguous balance in many parts of their work. Jim Rohn, author, speaker and mentor of Tony Robbins, puts it this way:

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant;
have humor, but without folly.”

Being proud (confident), “but not arrogant,” is the subject of this blog series, and as we’ve been discussing, there is more than a fine line between the two states. In fact, what separates confidence from arrogance is not a line at all but a ladder, the Ladder of Arrogance. Here once again are the four rungs of the ladder you don’t want to climb:

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.

Rung #4: Arrogance – Union Major General Daniel Sickles
When leaders are arrogant, it seems like everybody knows it but them! The arrogant leader talks incessantly about themselves, draws attention to themselves at the expense of others, sees themselves as superior and treats others in a commensurate and dismissive way. Arrogance is two steps above overconfidence and one step above egotism, and it’s at the top of the Ladder of Arrogance. It is arrogance that was exemplified at the Battle of Gettysburg by Union General Daniel Sickles, corps commander under Gen. George Meade of the Army of the Potomac.

On the second day of the three-day battle, Sickles’ Corp was supposed to be occupying the high ground on the left flank of the Union Army (a location later named, “Little Round Top”). But without orders to do so, Sickles had left that position and advanced into the fields he would make famous for death: the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Devil’s Den. In doing so, he not only made his units highly vulnerable, he risked the entire Army and the war. When his movements were eventually learned by his superiors, his new location had to be quickly fortified with reserves, too late for an orderly retreat, costing tens of thousands of lives for no reason and risking other positions along the Union line in the process.

Sickles disregarded orders without weighing the true consequences, ignored his role in the organization’s mission, and discounted the sacrifice of so many lives for his own fame, ego and gain. While he lost a leg in the battle, his arrogance cost much more in terms of other people’s lives. Beyond the battle, Sickles’ arrogance was seen before and after the war. The general would spend the rest of his life arguing that his actions actually saved the Army, casting aspersions on other officers including Gen. Meade, shifting blame to innocent peers, aggrandizing his injury, profiting politically, abusing relationships, and taking advantage of political connections and payoffs, even manipulating the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor — to none other than himself!

An arrogant leader is a bold, brash, malicious and charismatic bully who wields power in his own self-interest, often succeeding in reaching his personal goals but at an unconscionable cost to his subordinates, peers, and organizations. In today’s organizations, arrogant leaders get results but at such a high cost that their achievements are not worth the larger price that others pay.

What can you do to avoid climbing the ladder? Be alert to these warning signs:

– Believing that your past success is a predictor of your future success
– Having unwarranted certainty in your opinion
– Not asking for advice or ignoring it when it’s given
– Dismissing feedback too easily or consistently as inaccurate
– Showing signs of boastfulness and egotism as you approach the third rung

Be alert to others who may be climbing the Ladder of Arrogance and show them this model, share resources with them, or hire a qualified coach to help them interpret feedback and other data. Here are some additional resources for your reflection and theirs:

• Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors that Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo
• The Arrogance Cycle: Think You Can’t Lose, Think Again by Michael K. Farr and P. J. O’Rourke
• The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell

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