Arrogant leaders create a toxic environment that decreases the motivation and the retention of people in their sphere of influence. It is, indeed, the mother of all derailers. Derailment occurs when a high-performing individual in a leadership position “unravels” due to inappropriate or ineffective behaviors and their career as a leader comes undone. The causes of derailment are many, but generally fall into two interrelated categories: 1) strengths become weaknesses and 2) accurate self-awareness is lacking. Arrogance is a fatal flaw that encompasses both categories and, as such, is arguably the primary career killer for leaders. Following these guidelines can help you supervise someone who fits this label.
I discussed the concept of leadership derailment in my September/October 2020 PLJ article, “Why Successful People Fail.” Derailment occurs when a high-performing individual in a leadership position “unravels” due to inappropriate or ineffective behaviors and their career as a leader comes undone.
The causes of derailment are many, but generally fall into two interrelated categories: 1) strengths become weaknesses and 2) accurate self-awareness is lacking. Arrogance is a fatal flaw that encompasses both categories and, as such, is arguably the primary career killer for leaders.
What Is Arrogance?
Arrogance is not simply a high level of self-confidence or even a grandiose or pretentious personality. Arrogance is rooted in a sense of superiority displayed by a disparaging and insulting disdain for others in interpersonal actions. Arrogance manifests itself behaviorally in the following ways(1):
Talking too much and listening too little. Arrogant leaders believe they have all of the answers. They don’t ask questions to solicit other people’s feedback because they don’t care. As such, they are terrible listeners. Peers and those who report to them eventually shut down or stop offering ideas because they know their views will not be heard. The obvious interpretation is that arrogant leaders believe that they are smarter than almost everybody, but the data show that they are not, and they don’t know that.(1) In fact, several studies have shown that arrogance is correlated with lower IQ scores.(2)
Exhibiting dismissive responses. Dismissive responses are verbal and nonverbal signals that intentionally or unintentionally negatively impact the self-esteem of another person. For example, arrogant leaders continually interrupt others to express their viewpoints. This behavior signals that what the other people have to say is unimportant and, by extension, they are unimportant. Arrogant leaders also send nonverbal cues that discount others, such as eye-rolling, multitasking while talking to them, displaying impatient gestures, and the like. Simply put, dismissive responses are condescending behaviors, and arrogant leaders are masters.
Being late for meetings. Everyone is late for meetings from time to time, but arrogant leaders believe that their time is more valuable than others’ and disregard the impact of their tardiness on other people’s schedules. Furthermore, they seldom apologize for being late; if they do, it is an insincere gesture. They believe that everyone should operate on their schedule.
Never apologizing. If confronted about their behavior, arrogant leaders are unlikely to apologize. They usually are unwilling to even consider that an apology is needed. If fact, they rationalize their behavior by explaining how it was justified and what others did to deserve it. This speaks to a larger issue: Arrogant leaders lack self-awareness about the impact their behavior has on others.
Accurate self-awareness can decrease the odds of derailment because it signifies that you are mindful of your strengths, weaknesses, and hot buttons and how you are likely to respond when those buttons are pushed. More importantly, accurate self-awareness denotes a clear understanding of how your behavior affects others. These characteristics are absent in an arrogant leader and indicate a low level of emotional intelligence (EQ).(3)
In my experience coaching leaders, some of whom were the epitome of arrogance, I have noticed that while arrogant leaders display the aggravating behaviors described above with their peers and direct reports, they tend to suppress those behaviors when they associate with their superiors or politically influential people. Such conduct indicates that arrogant leaders can, if they so desire, curb their arrogant behavior; however, they will do so only when they think it is in their best self-interest.
Strategies for Success
Arrogance is best addressed early in a leader’s career; the longer it is tolerated, the more difficult it is to eradicate. As Jim Collins points out in his book How the Mighty Fall, hubris is often born of success.(4) As arrogant leaders experience some measure of success, their arrogant behavior is reinforced and interpreted as the reason for that success. Their self-importance inflates because, in their minds, it is justified.
If you supervise such a person, consider the following strategies.
Do not tolerate it. If you supervise an arrogant leader, make it clear that their behavior will not be tolerated regardless how successful they are in getting results. The short-term gain from an arrogant leader will be offset by the toxic atmosphere created within their teams and the organization.
Provide feedback. A dose of surprising and uncompromising feedback — such as that which comes from a 360-degree feedback process — can often wake up arrogant leaders to how others view them. And because they generally have fragile egos, this type of reality check (especially early in their career) may cause them to reflect on their behavior and perhaps self-correct before it is too late.
Provide interpersonal skill development. Providing professional development training in such areas as active listening and reflexive responses can help quell discourteous interactions that stem from arrogance.
Get them extra help. Help can come in two forms: 1) your mentoring and 2) training from an executive coach. When you are trying to help, focus your attention on the arrogant person’s behavior, not their intentions. Consistent feedback is essential. As you point out and help them understand the negative aspects of their behavior and its effects on others, also reinforce appropriate interpersonal interactions. An executive coach can also help. They have “no dog in the hunt” and can be honest and objective when coaching the arrogant leader. An effective executive coach focuses on changing the thought patterns that precipitate disparaging behavior and teaching the interpersonal skills necessary for productive interactions.
Arrogant leaders create a toxic environment that decreases the motivation and the retention of people in their sphere of influence. It is, indeed, the mother of all derailers. Following these guidelines can help you supervise someone who fits this label.
Sanaghan P, Lohndorf J. How Higher-Ed Leaders Derail: A Survival Guide for Leaders. Denver, CO.: Academic Impressions; 2018.
Jenks S, Steele F. The Arrogant Leader: Dealing with Excesses of Power. Kittery, ME: Smith/Kerr Assoc.; 2012.
Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1995.
Collins J. How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In. New York, NY: Random House; 2009.