When is boasting impolite? How do you distinguish between exuding a healthy self-confidence and an overbearing sense of self-importance? How do you "walk the thin line between healthy confidence and business-wrecking hubris?" That´s the subject of a forthcoming book titled EGO CHECK: Why Executive Hubris Is Wrecking Careers and Companies and How to Avoid the Trap (Kaplan Publishing, January 2007) by Mathew Hayward of Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado. .
Do you ever wonder (I do) why some leaders and executives behave badly when it comes to over-strutting their stuff and display the kind of "excessive pride that is at the root of so many business failures?" This book intrigues me, because for so many years this topic was taboo-whispered about in hallways, behind closed doors, or raucously away from the office altogether where people could talk freely without fear of being censured or, worse, fired. This book and its tough-worded title bring the subject out into the open.
Like most books that do a good job of demonstrating a central point, this text does so by analyzing the successes and failures of executives like Carly Fiorina, Michael Dell, Jean-Marie Messier, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, and Warren Buffett. The crux of Hayward´s book is a set of four specific approaches. Here are the first two approaches.
Do any of these sound familiar?
1. Getting Too Full of Themselves-Here the author writes about excessive pride and specifically examines how the success of Apple 2 went to Steve Jobs´ head, which led to his underestimation of Bill Gates and Microsoft and other miscalculations. Hayward also includes how when Jobs returned his excessive pride was brought under control.
2. Failing to Get Out of Their Way-With this approach, the author urges executives to cultivate a number "foils"-people who share their agenda and goals but present facts as they are and serve to curb false confidence. He talks about the isolation Carly Fiornina experienced at Hewlett-Packard and how it made her more susceptible to a false sense of confidence in her decisions. I´m surprised, though, by the fact that he presents Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison as someone who has worked well with the right foils, thus preventing him from leading in an autocratic style which leads to hubris.
Most people tend to get a little full of themselves from time to time. Sometimes they don´t even realize what they´re doing or saying. And very often it takes a bold friend or colleague to tip them off-if they´re lucky. Otherwise, they´re likely to be taken down a level by their supervisors. The trick is to find that delicate balance between polite and acceptable boasting and excessive bragging. Very often the person who successfully pulls this off does so by merely acknowledging praise. Saying "Thank you" is a lot different than responding with, "Thank you. I am rather fabulous, aren´t I?" The problem for leaders who behave this way is that their staffs and peers and everyone else looking in starts to focus solely on their style of communicating paying no attention after a while to any substance if there is any to speak of.
People who fail to get out of their own way suffer from the same thing. People who stumble on their own toes tend to be incredibly controlling, not wanting anyone else to venture in on their turf. That might feel heady at first, but when they look around and can´t find any allies it´s usually because no one wants to fall into the big hole they´re digging.
Next time: more on Hayward´s sources of the false confidence that brings on disastrous business decisions.