"I am the greatest!" Toxicity as Pride
As a child of the 1970s and 80s, I grew up in the light of America’s all-time greatest professional boxer, the ever-loquacious, always self-promoting Muhammad Ali. I remember a particular media event where Ali, in yet another display of his powerful personality, declared, “I am the greatest!” Even as a young boy, this statement didn’t sit well with me. Having been taught at least some level of humility by my parents, I realized the haughty and prideful character of Ali’s proclamation. Sure, he was a great boxer, but was he really the greatest? And shouldn’t someone else be the promoter of your greatness? I was admittedly put off by Ali’s arrogance and, to be honest, I am not a fan of his today, simply because of his unabashed pride.
Most of us are like this to some extent. We don’t mind confidence; indeed, we value it in ourselves and others. Success is largely predicated on confidence, as is a healthy sense of self and internal peace. However, when confidence becomes over-confidence, arrogance, or pride, well, we are significantly less forgiving. Humility is a virtue with which most people find great comfort and to which most aspire. Although few of us are truly humble--we all harbor some manner of ego-centrism--even fewer of us yearn to be self-adulating, hubris-driven blowhards. That is to say, even though we tend toward pride, we don’t necessarily like it when we see it in ourselves!
Now, by pride I am not talking about the colloquial sense of doing a job well, as in “taking pride in one’s work.” This, of course, is admirable. Nor am I referring to that sense of joy someone feels when she accomplishes a goal, gets a promotion, finishes a degree or certificate program, becomes a member of a reputable organization, or any other countless life events. The pride to which I refer is not episodic, as in these instances. Rather, it is an enduring sense of self-importance and selfishness that often manifests in overly gracious attitudes toward oneself and highly critical attitudes toward others. In other words, pride (as defined here) is when one thinks of himself as better than others to such an extent that his focus rests almost entirely on himself. Some might call this egocentrism or, in the most extreme cases, narcissism.
Which brings us to the topic of leadership. Who has ever worked for an aloof boss or been under the management of someone who obviously thought her “stuff didn’t stink”? Surely we’ve all experienced people in leadership who clearly thought their importance to the organization--or the world for that matter--greatly outmatched that of those who worked for them. I recall working for a university vice provost once who was so self-absorbed that he would have college deans fetch coffee for him during meetings and then “joke” about his power to make upper-administrators do his will. As you can imagine, his humor was sorely lost on these deans, who were practically reduced to waiters and waitresses. Furthermore, his arrogant manipulation, which was based solely on power imbalance, significantly reduced morale among the deans and garnered a sense of uncertainty and fear that was palpable. The questions on everyone’s mind were, “Will he humiliate me during our upcoming meeting?” “Will I be his next victim?” and “Did I really get a Ph.D. to be treated like this?”
But this vice provost did not care that his subordinates were fearful and demotivated. Why? Because it was all about him! All care was focused inward; he didn’t have the time or energy to care about anyone else.
Pride of this magnitude is quite obviously toxic. When the leader’s concern for self far outweighs her concern for others and for the affairs of the team, then poison has been introduced into the organization. This poison’s symptoms manifest as low morale, employee dissatisfaction, group uncertainty, fear, and a host of other indicators, none of which is beneficial to anyone. In fact, if these symptoms are left unchecked, the poison will have long-term negative impacts that will destroy both individual employees and the organization itself.
On a positive note, we can all recall a supervisor who was a person of humility and other-centeredness. These are the ones who help grow us as individuals and who create organizational cultures that thrive. I served an Army company commander once, Capt. Michael Peterson, who was not only a brilliant scholar and military tactician, but he was also a man of utter humility. As his executive officer, I made many mistakes and on one occasion was rather insubordinate. But, to his credit, Capt. Peterson never placed his desire to impress the battalion commander or command “the best company” in the brigade ahead of his commitment to develop me as a young leader and to lead his unit with integrity and selflessness. Even on the occasion when I challenged his authority, Capt. Peterson took me aside, sternly told me to “stand down,” and then proceeded to counsel me. My insubordination never made it into my official record (thank goodness), but his patience, kindness, and mentorship certainly had a lasting impact. To this day, I look to Capt. Peterson as a shining example of what it means to be a humble leader.
Do you have an example of leadership humility in your life? I’m sure you do. But I’m sure you have more examples of leaders who, through word and/or deed, consistently declared to you and others, “I am the greatest!” And this is no doubt one of the principle reasons you and/or others left the organization. As a wise person once told me, people don’t leave organizations, they leave people. Humans are geared not to respond well to pride; thus, prideful leaders are toxic leaders.
So, what kind of leader are you?