Is it confidence or arrogance that you are seeing in your leaders? An actual example from leadership benchmarking work I did with international executives may help to answer this question. As I exited the elevator at a Fortune 500 company where I was scheduled to interview a leader I had not met, I heard someone yell from the other end of the executive suite, “Ryan, get in my office!” This person turned out to be Jim (not his real name), the executive whom I was meeting. Once I sat down in Jim’s office, he told me he was looking forward to talking with me, because he was “the best” at what he does. Since I had already interviewed an array of executives (some of whom possessed sizable egos) over several months, Jim’s interesting way of introducing himself made me think I might have found the personification of arrogance.

Clarifying Arrogance

So, what is arrogance? The work of Stanley Silverman (University of Akron) and his colleagues describes arrogance as a combination of behaviors that communicate one’s superiority and importance relative to others. While some companies, cultures and industries almost seem to encourage arrogance, it can have negative consequences. Besides being off-putting to many people who encounter it, arrogance has been associated with the following results that hinder organizational effectiveness:

  • Poor job performance
  • Unsuccessful courses of action due to ignoring key diagnostic information
  • Failure to assist colleagues who need help with difficult issues
  • Lack of mentoring for less-experienced employees

If you look closely at arrogance, there is an ironic aspect to it. While it gives the impression of extreme self-confidence, arrogance is used in part as a way to compensate for insecurity or a lack of self-confidence. Arrogance is the inflation of one’s self-importance that is intended to make others feel inferior. So, it is not based on fact or reality. This differs from confidence. Confidence is a factual and reality-based belief about one’s capabilities or standing in different situations. There is substance behind confidence whereas there is not for arrogance.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to find humility combined with arrogance, but humility can combine with confidence. According to Michael Johnson at the University of Washington, humility involves a variety of elements including knowing your strengths and limitations as well as valuing the contributions of, learning from and being of service to others. If you need examples, consider the Level 5 leaders Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great. In combining confidence and humility, leaders can believe in their capabilities, but these individuals do not have the need to tell others about the greatness of their capabilities to try to make them feel inferior.

Getting the Full Picture

As you consider whether it is truly arrogance or confidence that you notice in your leaders, be sure you dig to get enough detail to make an objective assessment. What might initially look like arrogance can turn out to be confidence as you gain a better picture of the person. This is what I found with Jim. As I talked more with him, I discovered he had willingly worked his way up from the most menial job at his company earlier in his career to the current role as an executive. His interesting way of engaging me at the beginning of the meeting actually turned out to be confidence combined with a mischievous sense of humor and a lot of humility. This was a powerful combination. By the end of the meeting, I found myself wanting to work for him. For more information, see Humility Above Arrogance or Arrogance: A Formula for Leadership Failure.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Pixabay)