No Brag. Just Fact.


Everyone knows the boss from hell.

One of the common incarnations is the arrogant narcissist. Even if you haven’t had the misfortune of working for one, you can’t have missed him: Dabney Coleman in 9 to 5, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, any number of Dickens characters. He (or she) is the vain, self-centered manager whose exalted image of himself so misrepresents his limited capabilities as to be unrecognizable.

Recently, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer leveled the narcissist charge against Barack Obama. Such is the nature of our traditional American disdain for public self-love that condemning the President as egotist was itself important enough to engender heated debate from across the partisan spectrum. Narcissism is an “it” topic all of the sudden.

So most professionals strive to avoid behavior that might create the appearance of arrogance. Many choose self-deprecation as the means of doing so. On the surface it’s an attractive alternative particularly to those who, by position or personality, can be intimidating. It certainly smacks of humility. But a manager who is constantly and publicly calling into question his own judgment and performance is hardly more tolerable than the narcissist. I once heard an old Methodist preacher say that “humility is not talking badly about yourself; humility is not talking about yourself at all.” While we tire of the exorbitant, unmerited claims of the narcissist boss we don’t really want to replace it with repetitive self-loathing and self-doubt in our leaders.

What we really want is confidence.

Confidence is to arrogance what humility is to self-deprecation. They are the purer, higher forms of those distorted caricatures. Arrogance and self-deprecation simply cannot co-exist; confidence and humility can and should.

The problem is that it is easy for people who have long worked for narcissists to know. It is harder to recognize it in someone you’ve only recently met and neither is it easy for arrogant managers to spot it in themselves. So here are four telltale signs:

Confidence wants to be surrounded by smarter people; arrogance does not.

They say that if you are the smartest person in the room you are in the wrong room. The confident manager will agree. For him or her it is like playing tennis; you get the best game from playing someone slightly better than you are and you crave those opportunities.

Confidence appreciates dissent; arrogance despises it.

There’s an old adage that if two business colleagues always agree then one of them is unnecessary. When a thoughtful, well-intentioned objection is raised to his ideas the confident manager’s ears perk up; the arrogant manager’s defenses do.

Confidence attracts; arrogance repels.

It is no easy thing to tell a truly arrogant person that he is one, so if you are uncertain about yourself it is probably useless to ask your colleagues. Rather look at your employee retention rate and what interest you generate for positions reporting to you. People want to work around confidence.

Confidence views teaching and learning as two equal obligations.

This is the single surest sign of a truly confident person. He teaches and learns with equal enthusiasm. The confident leader knows that he has much to offer and it is his responsibility to provide insight and direction, but he also knows that he has much yet to learn and is eager for the knowledge and experience of his professional and personal community.

It comes down to the fact that a powerful leader is one who is not only capable, but whose self-image is aligned with that capability, not higher, and not lower. In the 1960’s crusty actor Walter Brennan starred in a short-lived cowboy series called “The Guns of Will Sonnett”. Brennan’s character was the patriarch of a family of accomplished gunslingers. Brennan would calmly insist he was the fastest gun of all with what became the show’s catchphrase:  “No brag. Just fact.”

That’s what we want in our boss, or parent, or leader of any sort. No brag. Just fact.


The Secretary Problem

Secretaries at work circa 1935It isn’t what you think.

The “secretary problem” in this case is the name of a very famous math conundrum originally conceptualized around the best method for hiring a secretary. It has also been called the “sultan’s dowry”, the “marriage problem” or simply the “optimal choice” problem. For the sake of political correctness and to be slightly more up to date, I will just call it…the “speed dating” problem.

Here is my version. Imagine you are engaged in a speed dating exercise with 50 potential matches. You meet each sequentially in random order and immediately after each individual conversation you must decide whether that person is your preferred match. Once you select a person the exercise ends and that is your final choice. Should you move past a candidate to the next suitor that candidate is no longer available to be selected. You can’t go back. So with every disqualification you reduce the remaining pool of potential mates and you cannot know whether there is someone better waiting or whether you are passing up the best available match.

How do you increase the probability of making the best possible selection?

Mathematicians have answered precisely that question with something called “optimal stopping” theory. Optimal stopping in this scenario requires automatically rejecting an initial number of potential dates and then selecting the very next candidate who is better than all the previous ones. Of course, how many potential dates should we initially pass over? Too small a group and we don’t see enough candidates to make a really good comparison, but too many and we may miss all the really hot dates and be left with a small number of only poor suitors at the end. So what is the right number? Mathematicians can easily calculate the stopping point which gives you the very best probabilities. In very large pools, for instance, the optimal stopping point arrives after you have seen approximately 37% of the total pool. Once there, your best odds result from selecting the very next candidate who is better than all the previous ones you have evaluated.

But here is the interesting bit….we don’t do it.

When behavioral scientists study how we actually make selections they have shown that people tend to decide things much too quickly. In a way it is not surprising. Science may coach us to invest more time in thinking, but that notion remains unrewarded in popular culture. Traditionally in business, sports, politics and elsewhere the heroic decision maker is one who chooses with speed and certainty. The more difficult the problem the more we crave the simple quick solution. The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report captured the sense with a recent headline parodying public frustration with America’s cautious response to complex global crises: “Growing Pressure on Obama to Do Something Stupid”.

The general perception is that our consideration aptitude, that willingness and ability to thoughtfully consider alternatives, even those alien to our own biases and instincts, is diminishing. I am constantly aware of the negative impact of my own confirmation bias as I scour the web, read articles and evaluate factual evidence. But what if, as humans, we compound the bias problem by consciously or unconsciously choosing not to invest the time and effort to be truly thoughtful? Like rearing children, nurturing good judgment takes both quality time and quantity time.

In the early 17th century, the German astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, confronted a variation of The Secretary Problem when he undertook the process of deciding on his second wife. His first wife, Barbara, had died of illness and Kepler chose to pursue the selection of a new wife with the same mathematical scrutiny that he had successfully used to plot planetary motion. Kepler selected 11 ladies and, over a two year period examined their suitability in succession.

Alas, even Kepler was not immune to process flaws. After selecting Candidate Five, Susanna Reuttinger, he was talked out of the engagement by friends and family who convinced him that Candidate Four was truly the better choice. Happily, it turns out, Four was, by that time, no longer available for marriage so Kepler returned his affections back to Susanna who, he said, won him over with love, loyalty economy and diligence. By all accounts it was a wonderfully happy marriage.

It is a good reminder. Too often our culture heralds the quick choices made by soft heads with hard hearts, those who think sloppily and cannot tolerate contradiction. Give me the Keplers, hard headed and soft hearted citizens, persons whose thoughts are disciplined, who give ample time to consideration, and who make space for their souls to be spoken to.

They will usually find their way to a good decision.



For those who better understand math, here is an interesting review of the history of The Secretary Problem: Thomas Ferguson’s 1969 article, “Who Solved the Secretary Problem?” in Statistical Science: