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How to spot the warning signs of an insecure leader (and how to work with one)

We humans aren’t very good at assessing true leadership qualities and gravitate towards arrogant confidence in those in charge. Unfortunately, that is often a sign of weakness and the fallout can be tough on teams.

How to spot the warning signs of an insecure leader (and how to work with one)
[Source photo: gunnar3000/iStock]
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Most of the world’s problems are caused by bad leadership. For example, human-made disasters such as war, genocide, forced labor, and worker abuse, account for a much higher death toll than natural disasters. As the current pandemic shows, even natural disasters are profoundly exacerbated by inept leaders. The failed states, corrupt institutions, and malfunctioning social systems that stop people from unleashing their talents and living happy and healthy lives are ultimately the product of poor leadership. Take a look at these stats:

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  • 65% of employees in America say they would rather change their boss than have a pay raise. 
  • 75% of people quit their jobs because of their direct line manager, making bad leadership the number one cause of voluntary turnover in the world. 
  • Meta-analytic studies show that “people quit bosses, not jobs.” Toxic supervisors have a bigger impact on turnover than salary.
  • Fewer than 20% of boards are confident that their organizations have a grip on their leadership problems. 
  • Even in democratic countries approval ratings for leaders rarely surpass 50%. For example, the average approval rating for heads of state in the EU hovers around 40%.

As noted in one of our recent books, we face a pervasive gap between those put in charge of others and those with the ability to help others succeed in their roles. And while there are many reasons for this gap, a recurrent one is the inability to select leaders who are actually competent rather than merely confident.

Science explains the appeal of arrogant leaders

We are so seduced by confidence that we habitually end up with overconfident, arrogant leaders. This may explain a growing emphasis on humility in leaders. We value what we don’t have: humility, integrity, empathy, and altruism.

Research consistently finds no difference in confidence based on whether people are actually competent on the dimension in question. According to the authors of one study: “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” By the same token, the more expert we are in a domain, the more we realize there is more to learn.  

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What drives educated, rational people who are naturally interested in living a good life and bettering themselves and their loved ones to select people who seem unaware of their limitations and unjustifiably pleased with themselves, as if being your own greatest fan was indicative of talent or serves as a useful skill in leading others? The answer lies in human psychology and how it interacts with modern society.  

In general, people are not very good at assessing others’ competence. This is especially true for assessing leadership qualities such as competencies that build others’ strengths and enable organizations to accomplish challenging goals. These tend to be less visible than external factors like attractiveness, height, or tone of voice. Lacking easy access to signals of whether leaders are actually competent, we cling to what we see more readily, namely confidence. 

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the main reason for the pervasiveness of overconfidence and arrogance in society, especially at the top, is that the best way to deceive others is to deceive yourself first. Imagine you aspire to leadership or power and you have managed to delude yourself into thinking that you are amazing when in fact you lack critical skills. Although this delusion makes you a liability, a risk for others (especially those who follow and depend on you), it can make you more popular. People will gravitate towards you, thinking your certainty is indicative of skill and talent rather than delusion. Voltaire once said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Most people seem to prefer the absurdity of certainty to the pain of doubt.   

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Be wary of certainty in an uncertain world

The challenge is exacerbated now because the key qualities needed in leadership roles today are markedly different from those that served earlier societies well. Although the human species has not changed very much in our 300,000 years of evolution, the world has become dramatically more complex, along with the landscape of talent and ability.

Just 100 years ago, your career success—including your leadership potential—was based mostly on your social capital (who you know), a nice euphemism for nepotism. This shifted at the advent of the knowledge era to intellectual capital (what you know), which explained the rise of formal qualifications. For this reason, hard skills, as verified by university credentials, became a big career lubricant.

Today, however, we live in the age of psychological capital, where who you are is what should matter 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 roles because machines will struggle to automate these abilities (though there is no doubt their designers will try). 

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Unfortunately, when people try to evaluate basic leadership traits like integrity, self-awareness, empathy, or curiosity, we are hampered by personal preferences and social stereotypes. Most people think they are more creative, curious, honest, and self-aware than they actually are. Worse, men tend to be rated more highly on leadership traits than women, independent of actual qualifications. When we try to detect leadership ability in others, we get distracted by irrelevant information provided in the form of confidence, bravado and aggression, which pertain to style rather than substance. Sadly, we live in a world where style without substance will get you farther 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 badly needed, and why seemingly “strong,” macho leaders are a liability, weakening their teams and organizations. Even if we are reluctant to follow leaders who say “I don’t know,” we should understand that in a complex world it’s rare that leaders really know everything.

Therefore, having the self-awareness and humility to say “I don’t know” is a signal of strength and competence. Those same leaders will be more likely 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.

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Unfortunately, because too many of the most visible leaders today are not known for their humility or rational self-doubt, it is hard for the average person to understand the significance of these traits for competent leadership. It’s worth noting that those same visibly arrogant leaders are also not known for their competence

Understand that arrogance often comes from insecurity

How can we extricate ourselves from this persistent trap?  It starts by becoming aware that arrogant leaders are more likely to be insecure than competent. Recent academic research conceptualizes narcissism not as self-love but as self-loathing in disguise. The reason is unsurprising. Arrogance is defined as exaggerating one’s own worth or importance. This takes effort and can be seen as a cover for something that one wishes not to be discovered. It’s a deliberate attempt to compensate for self-perceived deficits or flaws.

Research on narcissism further finds that arrogance and entitlement are often a desperate call for validation and affirmation from others. It explains why narcissism and social media are a match made in heaven (or perhaps hell?) Both UK and U.S. versions of The Office, parody narcissistic bosses who desperately wish to see themselves in a better light than they actually see themselves. Bragging about talents that are actually lacking is a strategy for fooling oneself by fooling others and suggests insecurity. This is why narcissists get defensive and aggressive when challenged or belittled. 

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Reframing arrogance to escape the trap set by insecure leaders

Perhaps the best way to help your organization reduce the number of arrogant people in leadership roles is to reframe arrogance as a weakness in disguise. After all, those who are really sure of their abilities are usually interested in coming across as humble, warm, and likable even if it involves false modesty. Those who are paranoid about being frauds and resort to showing-off as an attempt to fake more talents than they actually have. Successfully reframing this induces sympathy for the would-be leader rather than admiration.

Arrogance is easier to spot than true confidence

As long as we continue to mistake confidence for competence, we will end up with too many inept people who succeed at fooling others by acting assertive, self-congratulatory, and vain. The only antidote is to become suspicious of excessive confidence. If someone talks all the time, especially about themselves, or dwells on their achievements and skills rather than expressing interests in others, ask yourself: is this style or substance?

Whether you’re seeing an honest presentation of delusional self-views or an attempt to fake competence does not matter. Either way, you may be dealing with someone who has the potential to weaken their team, either because they are too self-focused to care about others, or because they lack self-awareness, which will limit their ability to improve. Because arrogant leaders are afraid of criticism and dissent, they create environments low on psychological safety. And when people are afraid to speak up, teams are at risk of failure.   

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Navigate around arrogance

Just because you see arrogance in action—and understand it as a potential liability—doesn’t mean confronting it directly is the best course of action. If you work for an arrogant boss, trying to provide that person with a reality check is unlikely to turn out well.

To minimize the risks your boss creates and help your team perform well, go out of your way to demonstrate commitment to the team and interest in others. Offer support and help, and generally become a positive force. If you are asked for input about your manager in a 360 review, that may be your best opportunity to help them improve. After all, there is no better way to evaluate bosses’ performance than through upward feedback from direct reports or subordinates. 

Choose wisely

For those selecting leaders (boards, managers, voters), remember that arrogance is likely a sign of insecurity and that the effort required to keep it up puts your organization at risk. With this reframe, you’re freed up to look for signs of actual competence in developing others and enabling groups to pursue challenging goals.

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For those opting into a job or a team, the same advice applies in a different way. Be wary of joining the team of an arrogant leader. Your first question should be: Can I learn, grow, and contribute while being led by this person? Put yourself first for just a few minutes it may take to answer that question thoughtfully. This may save you from becoming one of the statistics cited and certainly will put you in a better position to contribute to a meaningful purpose at work. 

When we stop to recognize the havoc caused by bad leaders, we are better able to select better leaders by recognizing arrogance for what it is: A weakness that we cannot afford in an increasingly uncertain and challenging world.    


Amy C. Edmondson, Ph.D. is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She has written numerous books and articles and is best known for her research on psychological safety, summarized in her recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).