How to recognize the warning signs of an insecure leader and how to work with one

We humans are not very good at judging true leadership and tend to place arrogant trust in those in charge. Unfortunately, this is often a sign of weakness, and the consequences can be severe for teams.

Most of the world’s problems are caused by poor leadership. For example, the death toll from man-made disasters such as war, genocide, forced labor, and worker abuse is much higher than from natural disasters. As the current pandemic shows, even natural disasters are made much worse by incompetent leaders. The failed states, corrupt institutions, and poorly functioning social systems that prevent people from developing their talents and living happy and healthy lives are ultimately the result of poor leadership. Take a look at these statistics:

  • 65% of workers in America say they would rather change their boss than get a raise.
  • 75% of people quit their jobs because of their direct supervisor, making poor leadership the leading cause of voluntary turnover in the world.
  • Meta-analytic studies show that “people quit the bosses, not the job.” Toxic supervisors have a greater impact on turnover than salary.
  • Less than 20% of boards are confident that their companies have addressed their leadership problems.
  • Even in democratic countries, approval ratings for leaders rarely exceed 50%. For example, the average approval rating for heads of state in the EU is about 40%.
  • As we noted in one of our recent books, there is a wide gap between those who are responsible for others and those who are able to successfully support others in their roles. While there are many reasons for this discrepancy, one recurring reason is the inability to select leaders who are actually competent, not just confident.

We are so seduced by self-confidence that we tend to seek out overconfident, arrogant leaders. This could be one explanation for the increasing emphasis on humility in leaders. We value what we don’t have: Humility, integrity, empathy, and altruism.

Research consistently finds that there is no difference in self-confidence depending on whether people are actually competent in the dimension in question. The authors of one study write, “People with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a double burden: not only do they draw incorrect conclusions and make regrettable mistakes, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to recognize this.” Conversely, the more experienced we are in a field, the more we recognize that there is more to learn.

What drives educated, rational people who are inherently interested in living a good life and bettering themselves and their loved ones to select people who seem unaware of their limitations and are unjustifiably pleased with themselves, as if being one’s own biggest fan were a sign of talent or a useful ability to guide others? The answer lies in human psychology and its interaction with modern society.

In general, people are not very good at judging the competence of others. This is especially true when assessing leadership qualities such as competencies that enhance the strengths of others and enable organizations to achieve challenging goals. These tend to be less visible than external factors such as attractiveness, height, or voice pitch. Because we don’t have easy access to signals that tell us whether a leader is actually competent, we cling to what we tend to see, namely confidence.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the main reason for widespread overconfidence and arrogance in society, especially at the top, is that the best way to fool others is to fool yourself first. Imagine that you aspire to a leadership position or power and have managed to convince yourself that you are amazing, when in fact you lack crucial skills. Although this deception makes you a liability and a risk to others (especially those who follow and depend on you), it can make you more popular. People will be attracted to you because they think your certainty is a sign of ability and talent, not delusion. Voltaire once said, “Doubt is not a pleasant state, but certainty is absurd.” Most people seem to prefer the absurdity of certainty to the pain of doubt.

The challenge is even greater today because the key qualities needed in leadership positions today are markedly different from those that served well in past societies. Although the human species hasn’t changed much in the 300,000 years of our evolution, the world has become dramatically more complex, as has the landscape of talents and skills.

Just 100 years ago, your professional success – including your leadership potential – was based primarily on your social capital (who you know), a nice euphemism for nepotism. With the advent of the knowledge age, this shifted to intellectual capital (what you know), which explains the rise of formal skills. For this reason, “hard skills,” as evidenced by university credentials, became an important career lubricant.

Today, however, we live in the age of psychological capital, where who you are matters most. Knowledge and expertise are still important, but your ability to think, create, be curious, and empathize with others is more important, especially in leadership positions, because machines will struggle to automate these skills (even though their designers will undoubtedly try).

Unfortunately, when trying to assess basic leadership traits such as integrity, self-awareness, empathy, or curiosity, we are hindered by personal preferences and societal stereotypes. Most people think of themselves as more creative, curious, honest, and confident than they actually are. Worse, men tend to be rated higher than women when it comes to leadership qualities, regardless of their actual qualifications. When we try to identify leadership qualities in others, we allow ourselves to be distracted by irrelevant information in the form of self-confidence, bravado, and aggression that is more about style than substance. Unfortunately, we live in a world where style without substance gets you further than substance without style. For every Merkel or Ardern in the world, there will be many more Trumps, Bolsonaros, Orbans and Berlusconis.

As we have written before, this is the main reason why vulnerable leaders are desperately needed and why seemingly “strong” macho leaders are a liability that weakens their teams and organizations. While we may be reluctant to follow leaders who say, “I don’t know,” we should understand that in a complex world, it is rare for leaders to truly know everything.

Therefore, being self-aware and having the humility to say, “I don’t know,” is a sign of strength and competence. These same leaders will be more willing to work hard and leverage the distributed wisdom of teams in the knowledge economy to close the gap between what they need to know and what they actually know.

Unfortunately, too many of today’s most prominent leaders are not known for their humility or rational self-doubt, making it difficult for the average person to understand the importance of these qualities to competent leadership. It is worth noting that these same visibly arrogant leaders are also not known for their competence.

How can we extricate ourselves from this stubborn trap? It starts by realizing that arrogant leaders are insecure rather than competent. In recent scientific research, narcissism is understood not as self-love but as self-hate in disguise. The reason for this is not surprising. Arrogance is defined as exaggerating one’s own value or importance. It takes effort and can be seen as a cover for something you don’t want discovered. It is a deliberate attempt to compensate for self-perceived deficits or flaws.

Research on narcissism also shows that arrogance and entitlement are often a desperate call for validation and affirmation from others. This explains why narcissism and social media are made in heaven (or maybe hell?). Both the UK and US versions of The Office parody narcissistic bosses who desperately want to see themselves in a better light than they actually see themselves. Boasting about talents that are not actually there is a strategy for deceiving oneself by deceiving others and indicates insecurity. For this reason, narcissists become defensive and aggressive when challenged or belittled.

Perhaps the best way to help your organization reduce the number of arrogant people in leadership positions is to view arrogance as a weakness in disguise. After all, those who are truly confident in their abilities are usually interested in appearing humble, warm, and personable, even if it comes with false modesty. Those who are paranoid because they think they are frauds try to fake more talent than they actually have by showing off. If this behavior can be reinterpreted, sympathy for the would-be leader rather than admiration will result.

As long as we confuse self-confidence with competence, there will be too many incompetent people who succeed in deceiving others by appearing confident, smug, and vain. The only antidote is to become suspicious of overconfidence. If someone is constantly talking, especially about themselves, or focusing on their accomplishments and abilities rather than expressing interest in others, ask yourself: is this style or substance?

It doesn’t matter if it’s an honest portrayal of delusional self-evaluations or an attempt to feign competence. In either case, you are dealing with someone who has the potential to weaken his team, either because he is too focused on himself to care about others or because he lacks self-awareness, which will limit his ability to improve. Arrogant leaders are afraid of criticism and disagreement, creating an environment that offers little psychological safety. And when people are afraid to speak their minds, teams are at risk of failure.

Just because you see arrogance in action and recognize it as a potential danger doesn’t mean addressing it directly is the best solution. If you work for an arrogant boss, it’s unlikely that trying to talk some sense into him or her will end well.

To minimize the risks your boss causes and help your team perform well, make an effort to show your commitment to the team and your interest in others. Offer support and help and generally become a positive force. If you are asked for your opinion of your supervisor as part of a 360 assessment, this may be the best opportunity to help them improve. After all, there is no better way to evaluate a supervisor’s performance than through feedback from direct reports or subordinates.

When selecting leaders (board members, managers, constituents), remember that arrogance is likely a sign of insecurity and that the effort required to maintain it puts your organization at risk. With this mindset, you can look for signs of actual competence in developing others and enabling groups to pursue challenging goals.

For those who decide to take a job or join a team, the same advice applies in a different form. Be wary of joining the team of an arrogant leader. Your first question should be: Can I learn, grow and contribute under this person’s leadership? Put yourself first and take a few minutes to answer this question. This can save you from being one of the statistics cited and will certainly put you in a better position to contribute to a meaningful purpose at work.

When we pause to recognize the damage bad leaders do, we are better able to choose better leaders by recognizing arrogance for what it is: a weakness we cannot afford in an increasingly uncertain and difficult world.

An important advice for your career life from ICEHRM.COM , a best digital HR platform.

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