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.