Leadership is hard. When you assume the role of leader, among other things, you’re supposed to work harder and longer than everyone else, rally people behind challenging and compelling goals, make accurate decisions and cut good deals, elevate peoples’ standards and performance, and build a deep bench of future leaders. While you’re doing all those things, people are scrutinizing your every move. They are ready to judge and second guess you if you are behaviorally deficient at being strategic and tactical, decisive and inclusive, reasonable and passionate, rational and emotionally intelligent, caring and impartial, and profit-driven and people-oriented. Yep, leading ain’t easy.
While the expectations that others have for you when you’re the leader is tasking, it pales in comparison to the incessantly surging seductions of leadership itself. When you’re in a leadership role, you get more perks, freedom, compensation and power. Before long, people start treating you special, as if you are better than non-leaders. They defer to your judgment, they jockey for your attention and favor, and they get in line with your perspectives and preferences often at the expense of their own. The higher you reside on the hierarchical ladder, the more “above” non-leaders you become and the more pampered people are apt to treat you. The longer you’re in a leadership role, the more dangerous and powerful the gravitational seductions of leadership become.
There is a point at which all that special treatment and pampering can contort and pervert your leadership. Left unchecked, it can inflate your ego to the point that you shift from leading for the good of others to leading to acquire more for yourself. It’s at this point that the opportunity to apply your influence for the benefit of others is eclipsed by a fear of losing all that you’ve gained for yourself, including all that special treatment. When the fear of losing your power takes over the behavioral controls of your leadership, you’ll stop being a leader and start being a ruler.
I call the point at which the potential is high for your leadership to shift from leading to ruling the “hubris point.” The simplest definition for the word “hubris” is dangerous overconfidence. But the word has additional nuanced complexities. It’s an ancient Greek word that also included taking pleasure out of humiliating others and even encompassed a connotation of sexual conquest and exploitation. Hubris, according to the Greeks, is an insult to humility and epitomizes insolence to the gods.
So, what does the hubris point look like? Read the national news headlines on any given day to find out. When you see a respected leader decimate his or her entire career and reputation through an ethical breach, you’re watching a leader who has tipped over the hubris point. In the last few years, we’ve seen leaders in every field and industry succumb to hubris, including politics, entertainment, religious, corporate, nonprofit and philanthropy and the military. Just a tiny fraction of their names include Travis Kalanick, Elizabeth Holmes, Carlos Goshen, Eric Greitens, Les Moonves, Russell Simmons, Wayne Pacelle, John Lassiter, Larry Nassar and Harvey Weinstein. What do they all have in common? Their leadership shifted from bringing good to others toward satisfying their own wants. Hubris poisoned their bloodstream.
It’s tempting to think, “Well, that will never happen to me because I’m not leading a large organization.” Think again. Regardless of the scale and significance of your leadership role, you have to guard against the unrelenting temptation of hubris. Here are signs you might have reached the hubris point:
You’re childish. Do you find yourself easily offended? Are you overly sensitive as to whether your leadership is being “respected?” Do you have a short fuse when people question your decisions or directives? If yes, hubris might be at work.
You say ‘I’ too much. It’s easy for others to hear hubris when a leader talks about him or herself too much. I call this the “I-to-we ratio.” If you’re saying “I” more than “we,” there’s a good chance you’re self-focused to the point of being hubristic.
You think you deserve more. Some level of unsatisfaction is healthy for a leader in that it keeps you focused on getting better results. But that’s different than wanting more perks and compensation for yourself. Hubristic leaders constantly feel like their value isn’t being fully appreciated or compensated. They feel entitled to more latitude, respect, deference, perks and money.
You’re surrounded by suck-ups. It takes a high degree of leadership maturity to surround yourself with truthtellers. Instead, big-egoed leaders surround themselves with worshipers and people who won’t question their judgment or directives. This insulates the leader from having to take any accountability for pretty much anything. When things go south, the hubristic leader can legitimately argue, “Everyone fully agreed that this was the right way to go.”
You’re always in a fight. When you’ve switched from being a leader to being a ruler, you demand subjugation. People who refuse to be your subjects are viewed as disloyal and unworthy of your good graces. So they become your enemy. If you find yourself in a constant state of disharmony with others, it might be because you’re an arrogant jerk, not a leader.
The world needs more and better leaders. If you’ve been privileged to be placed in a leadership role, it pays to remember the first law of leadership: It’s not about you. Leadership that’s working right is working for the good of others. Keeping the focus on the opportunities you’re creating and bringing to others requires a tremendous amount of self-governance and discipline. When people start treating you different and better, as they inevitably will when you’re in a leadership role, make keeping your ego in check one of your highest priorities. Your leadership power must stay anchored to the grounding force of humility to do the most good.
By Bill Treasurer
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