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Big Me, Little You: How Hubristic Pride Destroys Good Leadership

An excerpt from Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change

There’s a Native American parable about three warriors who make a long and difficult journey to visit a great spirit at a faraway sacred site. They of- fer the spirit a gift of tobacco, and, in appreciation for the gift, the spirit agrees to grant each of them a wish. One asks for the skills to be a better hunter, “for I have a big family and I’m not able to feed them.” His wish is granted. Another asks for a wife, “for I have everything and no one to share it with.” His wish also is granted. The third warrior gives the matter some thought and then asks for eternal life, “for I want to live forever.” His wish is granted too—he is transformed into a spirit rock!

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Not standing before a spirit offering tobacco in exchange for a wish to be granted, but you’ve worked hard to get somewhere or to achieve some grand goal and thought, “It’s time for the payoff!”

That’s when temptation attacks a leader—the temptation of a prideful heart. It’s the byproduct of success. It convinces you that you have all the answers, you are the expert, and you deserve the credit. It tells you that you’ve earned the rewards, and you should get what you want while the getting is good.

A prideful heart feeds your greed and starves your humility. It is filled with self and loses sight of a leader’s true purpose—having a transformative influence on the lives of others. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to see before it’s too late. We charge forward, driven by our pride until the next thing we know, our hearts are as hard as a spirit rock.

Pride is the other ageless opponent of a transfluent leader, an internal storm that’s raged for centuries and across all cultures. More specifically, it’s “hubristic pride.”

What do I mean by “hubristic pride”?

Many psychologists use two buckets to describe pride. Authentic pride comes from feeling confident and productive. It’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in our work or feeling pride about things like the accomplishments of our children, our co-workers, or our college football team. Hubristic pride, on the other hand, involves vanity, egotism, and arrogance. As psychologist Guy Winch points out, hubristic pride is “related to socially undesirable traits such as being disagreeable, aggressive, having low or brittle self-esteem—and being prone to shame.” It’s what caused young Narcissus to look into the pool of water and fall in love with the reflection of himself, which is why we have Greek mythology to thank for the term narcissism.

Many theologians (across a variety of religions) consider this inwardly directed pride the root of all other sins. It tells us that we are central to everything that’s going on around us. If we’re focused on getting everything we want, the way that we want it, and in ways that shine the most light on us, then we will refuse to admit our weaknesses, own our mistakes, learn from our errors, or give credit to others who’ve earned it. Instead, we will boast about what we’ve done, what we’re doing, or what we’re planning to do. We will grow defensive when challenged, belittling others to lift ourselves up. And we will serve only one person: ourselves.

William Wilberforce, the English politician and reformer of the late 1700s and early 1800s, saw selfishness at the core of humankind’s pride.

“Selfishness is one of the principal fruits of the corruption of human nature,” he said, “and it is obvious that selfishness disposes us to over-rate our good qualities and to overlook or extenuate our defects.”1

We live in a world where social media sites like YouTube can turn just about anyone into a celebrity, where social media “influencer” is a bona fide job title, and where the power of the pen has been replaced by the power of the hashtag. Needless to say, our culture often encourages selfish pride and provides the technological vehicles to promote just about anything or anyone quickly and at scale. Unfortunately, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks was spot-on when he pointed out that we’ve developed into a “Big Me” culture. The same social media that provides access and transparency also drives obnoxious amounts of self-promotion and self-glorification.

Hubristic pride destroys good leadership. They simply cannot co-exist together. And, yet, pride is perhaps the most seductive byproduct of successful leadership. Bill Treasurer, chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting, points out how easy it is for leaders to “slip into the idea that you’re better, smarter, and more special” than anyone else. Why? Because the trappings of leadership tell you so.

“First, not everyone gets to be a leader, so the fact that you are one sends the message that there’s something special about you,” Treasurer says. “Second, leaders get more perks. When you’re a leader, you get bigger titles, bigger workspaces, and a bigger salary. Finally, leaders get a lot more behavioral latitude. Nobody challenges you when you show up late for a meeting, interrupt people, or skirt company policies that lower level employees have to abide by.”

This leads to inflated egos and the abuse of power. It’s an underlying component in almost every leadership scandal.

Martin Shkreli. FIFA. #MeToo. Elizabeth Holmes. Volkswagen. The Olympics. What leadership scandal of the last decade stands out to you as demonstrating hubristic pride?

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  1. William Wilberforce, Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (Adamant media Corporation, 2001)

Lead with Transformative Influence

Transfluence shows leaders how they can have transformative influence by overcoming their fears and pride, building transparency into their leadership, developing a strong core of authentic values, and passionately pursuing a meaningful purpose.

Available Now.

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