In a village long ago, there lived a young boy who loved nothing as much as competing in athletic contests. Because he was fit and strong, he usually triumphed and grew to love the adulation he received from the villagers around him.
One day, he challenged two other youths to a race from one end of town to the other. The villagers all lined up to watch. The boy won, and the townspeople cheered wildly.
“Another race!” the boy demanded, greedy for more praise. “Who else will race me?”
Two more young men stepped up, and again the boy won handily. He laughed in pride as the villagers cheered -- though they were a little less enthusiastic than before.
“Who else wants to race me?” the boy said. “Come on, are you all afraid?”
An elderly woman was watching the races, and she grew annoyed at the boy’s arrogance. So, she prodded two elderly men to challenge him. They could barely make their way to the starting line, but they seemed willing to compete.
“What’s this?” The boy was puzzled. How could he win the applause he craved by beating two old men who could hardly stagger two steps?
The old woman walked up and whispered in his ear: “Do you want applause for this race?”
“Of course,” said the boy.
“Finish together,” the woman said. “Just finish together.”
The boy did as he was told and received the loudest applause of his life when the three of them reached the finish line, side by side.
That boy learned a valuable lesson that day. No one likes arrogance. Have you ever worked with someone who is arrogant? It’s not a pleasant experience.
Of all the human failings that can destroy a person or a business, arrogance is the deadliest. It is the most readily acquired, the easiest to justify and the hardest to recognize in ourselves. Arrogance can infect all employees in a company with the silent destructiveness of a computer virus.
Herb Kelleher, the now retired head of Southwest Airlines, understood that arrogance is the greatest danger to a successful company. He said, “A company is never more vulnerable to complacency than when it’s at the height of its success.”
In 1993, Kelleher began his annual letter to all employees by describing the major threat to Southwest Airlines at the time in these words: “The number one threat is us!” He went on to say, “We must not let success breed complacency; cockiness; greediness; laziness; indifference; preoccupation with nonessentials; bureaucracy; hierarchy; quarrelsomeness; or obliviousness to threats posed by the outside world.”
There is nothing at all wrong with being proud of your company and the work you do. In fact, if you don’t take pride in your work, you are probably not doing the best job you can do. But pride is not arrogance.
Arrogance is defined as engaging in behaviors intended to exaggerate a person’s sense of superiority by disparaging others. It’s not the same as narcissism, which is self-admiration. Nor is arrogance the same as being confident, which I consider a positive trait.
Unfortunately, many leaders today confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence in one’s ability is a critical element in the willingness to take risks while still steering the ship. Arrogance takes risks by assuming everyone will get on board even when the boat has a hole in it.
According to an article in The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist newsletter, arrogant people "inflate their self-importance and see themselves as better than others, purport to be more knowledgeable than others, consider their own behavior acceptable, make others feel inferior, avoid blame and pin blame on others, discount feedback, don’t perform their job well and are less likely to help others."
I would add to that list that arrogant people are name droppers, avoid eye contact, frequently interrupt conversations, seem to have an opinion or an answer for everything and aren’t afraid to blast their competitors.
If you recognize yourself doing any of these offensive acts, check your behavior. It’s nearly impossible to be a team player if you think you are better than everyone around you. Before long, you will be looking for a new team. You’d better hope your reputation doesn’t precede you.
As Elvis Presley said, “If you let your head get too big, it’ll break your neck.”
Mackay’s Moral: Don’t let arrogance get in the way of “finishing together.”