Hubris versus Humility and the Search for Adaptive Leadership

The most extreme case of hubris in recent memory involved the leaders of Enron. As an Amazon review says, “They make a mockery of conventional accounting practices and grow increasingly arrogant and blind to their collective hubris.” (The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind). Hubris, from the Greek, defines a sense of pompous pride or arrogance, an overestimation of one’s own competence especially from a position of power (adapted from Wikipedia).

Humility, on the other hand, defines a state of not thinking you are better that other people, of having a clear perspective, and therefore respect for one’s place. Humility is having a modest opinion of one’s abilities. On the downside, some associate humility with submissiveness. Conventional wisdom assigns goodness to humility and corruptness to hubris, but Frank Lloyd Wright had a different idea about the two, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”

Discussing leadership problems in the US Army, author Thomas Ricks quotes one junior officer—“Dishonest demands coming down, dishonest reports going up,” (The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks). This appears to be the recent situation at the Veterans Administration—dishonest demands for shorter patient wait times led to dishonest reporting. Sprinkling in bonuses tied to wait times turned dishonesty into disaster.

Hubris versus humility presents a daunting paradox for agile leaders. If hubris points to pompous pride and humility descends into meekness, then what characteristic should adaptive leaders strive for? I think that midway between hubris and humility lays confident-competent-—skills and knowledge complemented by realistic self-appraisal. Confident-competent leaders set stretch goals and help teams meet those goals. Hubristic leaders set dishonest goals, and then blame their teams for failing to meet them. One fosters mutual trust and respect, while the other fosters distrust, fear, and disrespect.

Jeff Skilling, Enron CEO, created a culture of hubris that led to dishonesty and eventually illegality that sent him to jail. Steve Jobs created a culture of confidence and competence, possibly touching on arrogance, that created the Apple juggernaut.

Every effective leader searches for the sweet spot between dishonest demands and stretch goals. The hubristic leader presses on in the face of reality while confident-competent leaders adapt to reality—they are willing to face their own fallibility. Studies have shown that most of us have a skewed view of our own abilities, but hubristic individuals have an inordinately skewed view of themselves.

Finding your confident-competence ground isn’t easy, as the difference between stretch goals and dishonest goals isn’t always clear. However, the hubristic leader tends to stand above the fray—reiterating goals in a mantra-like fashion. Competent-confident leaders adapt over time, modifying goals as needed, pivoting at times into new directions, and working alongside their teams in a peer-to-peer fashion.