The Intersection of Arrogance and Intelligence
It’s good to be competent. Being arrogant, not so much. But they’re often related. Being smart, bright and clever often leads to business success. But having these intellectual gifts also means that one gets used to being right, being perceived as a good problem-solver and being valued by others. And this leads to arrogance.
Intelligence and good interpersonal skills (which don’t include arrogance) are two of the fundamental characteristics necessary for success in business. They are the Intellectual and Interpersonal “I-Competencies.” They can be thought of as the Head and Heart factors. (The other two I-Competencies are Guts and Will – the Integrity and Intensity competencies.)
Plotted in a 2X2 grid, with brainpower on one axis and arrogance on the other, we see four basic combinations:
Low intelligence, low arrogance. These people are not likely to rise to the executive ranks unless they’re related to someone in power. They may be delightful people to spend time with, but they’re not clever enough to solve complex business problems, or arrogant enough to bluff their way through. They’re too dumb to know when somebody’s peeing on their leg and too nice to tell them to quit if they realize it. Natural selection at work.
High intelligence, low arrogance. These are the people who will solve problems, and do so in a way that’s not offensive or abrasive. If you’re in the selection and/or leadership development business, you want as many of these people you can get. But if the low arrogance is due to insecurity, you may need to do some work to encourage them to take the initiative and go to bat for their solutions. They’re likely to expect their work to speak for them and may have trouble selling themselves when necessary. They’re more inclined to be facilitative and supportive in a leadership role than aggressive, charismatic or forceful.
Low intelligence, high arrogance. They’re dangerous. They don’t realize the limits of their ability and don’t have the good sense to ask for a second opinion. They may have been taught they were special early on, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Good for building self esteem, but not for building leaders who can deal with the challenges and realities of business. They typically don’t make good decisions, and don’t anticipate the consequences of bad decisions. People with this unfortunate combination of characteristics can make a big splash early in their careers, but they usually flame out. If they get lucky, and their unfounded self confidence propels them beyond their true abilities, they can destroy an organization.
High intelligence, high arrogance. This is an interesting group, caught between competing forces of great potential and great danger. These people can be quite successful but they can also be destructive to morale and relationships, and ultimately to the organization. Leaders with this combination of characteristics tend to oppress or overwhelm their subordinates. If the boss is the brightest person in the room, and likely to ding someone for “dumb” ideas, people quickly learn to keep their heads down and let the boss set the course. Sometimes that works, but not over the long term. Tight ships aren’t necessarily happy ships.
High intelligence, high arrogance leaders can win any individual battle but lose the war. They create subordinates who become adept at passive aggressive behavior. Their subordinates learn to say all the right words and show appropriate compliance, but they secretly take pleasure in the inevitable obstacles and setbacks the bright/arrogant style creates. And they will watch passively as the leader fails when they may have otherwise been glad to help out. The world enjoys seeing arrogant people get their comeuppance.
What do you do with such a person in your organization? If he/she is the boss, maybe just grin and bear it, hoping that this too shall pass. If it gets too bad, you can always confront the boss, but don’t do it in a public arena. Of course you know that, but we forget the obvious when we’ve reached our limit. If you must confront such a boss, have clear facts, data and analyses to support your position, and state your reasons, methods and conclusions precisely. Who knows, you might just plant a positive seed. But you still may walk out with your head under your arm. If it’s really bad, maybe it’s time to ask the old Dear Abby question, “Is life better with or without him/her?” Maybe it’s time to polish the old resume.
If the competent but arrogant person is in mid-career of beyond, the chances for change are not favorable. If he/she gets a real shock and a clear message that a change in behavior is needed, you might see some positive results from direct, targeted and crisp coaching interventions. However, these folks don’t suffer fools or relate to fuzzy touchy-feely stuff. Our experience is that coaching rarely works with someone who needs to be fixed – unless there’s a huge dose of anxiety and motivation on the part of the fixee. There’s an old joke about how many shrinks it takes to change a light bulb (one, but the light bulb has to be really motivated to change). That’s very true with bright and arrogant executives. If they’re not motivated, use the money you’d spend on coaching to find a good headhunter instead. Sure, search fees will be higher than those of a coach, but the time you waste keeping a truly toxic leader around (no matter how smart) and the damage he/she can continue to inflict will cost you a lot more.
If the bright/arrogant person is early in his/her career, the prognosis for change is more optimistic. A bright person’s first real disappointment or failure is an ideal time to do an intervention. The two-by-four to the face early in a career is often one of the best things that can happen. Most coaches will jump at the chance to work with a bright/arrogant person who has just had the flash of insight that says “uh-oh…I screwed up and I’m not sure what to do here.”
Arrogance is sometimes a cover for insecurity. But, at least in business, it’s often driven by the combination of early competitive success, being one of the smartest kids in the class, and having been rewarded for cleverness. If it’s due to an insecure, brittle ego, longer term counseling and therapy may help. But few business organizations have the luxury of waiting around.
High intelligence tends to foster arrogance. It’s the rare leader indeed who has great intelligence, the humility to realize the limits of his/her competence, the courage to seek out contradictory information, the ability to correct course in the face of new feedback and data, yet still retain the confidence to stick with his/her convictions in the face of obstacles and pressure. When selecting leaders, look for high intelligence and appropriate confidence. But also look for humanity and insight. These are some of the things that can’t be taught or coached, at least in the time frames that constrain business organizations.
Call (404-237-6808) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information about selecting people who can help you continue to build your organization, and to help avoid those who may bring about more problems than they will solve.