Hubris in leadership development

|Matt Offord

I joined the Royal Navy Submarine Service at the end of the Cold War. As a young sub-lieutenant I had much to learn in order to become merely safe on board a vessel which is as complicated and as potentially dangerous as it gets. In my first appraisal, my Captain told me I would make a competent submariner because “I was always assuming something would go wrong”. Paranoia is a useful trait when buried under tons of cold seawater in a steel tube full of high energy systems and explosives. Of the leadership traits I admired most during my three decades in the Navy, I would not list optimism as the most important. Determination to succeed, yes. Optimism, no. When I became interested in leadership as a subject, over 10 years ago, I was astonished by the focus on positivity in leadership studies and I wondered why. I still do. Clearly, there are times when a leader needs to remain positive but this must be balanced with realism if a leader is to maintain trust. So why is leadership development tainted by an undue focus on optimism and extroversion? How does this affect the credibility of leadership gurus, experts and coaches?

There has, for a very long time, been an assumption that extroverts make better leaders. There is no empirical basis for this assumption and academics abandoned the idea in the mid-20th century. Ralph Stogdill, a leadership scholar, attempted to review all of the traits which supposedly made good leaders in 1948. What he discovered was explosive. Apparently, there are no specific traits which link with good leadership, although intelligence had the most promise. When considering extroversion, he found that five studies (which made grade for Stogdill) found a correlation between extroversion and leadership, two studies found that leaders tended to be introverted. But four studies could find no link whatsoever between either extroversion or introversion, and leadership. In particular, Stogdill discovered that studies of prominent soldiers and statesmen revealed a very high degree of introversion among successful leaders. Today, leadership scholars, on the whole, do not argue that leaders need to be extroverts. Furthermore, many psychologists now argue that diversity is more important than selecting leaders based on a single trait. After all, this simply results in a board room full of very similar characters. As we all know, this is a recipe for disaster.

The same might be said for optimists. Social media is awash with calls to abandon the ‘nay-sayers’, to disassociate with pessimists. The coaching industry, in particular, seems to be monopathic in its pursuit of positive mental attitude as the solution to all problems. What is with all this pessimist bashing? How has the poor pessimist earned this constant tongue-lashing from an industry which claims to support diversity and individuality? There is nothing wrong with pessimists or introverts, in fact all of these personality types are normal and necessary in a functioning team. Pessimists (or realists) provide a very necessary counter-balance to potential reckless decision making. Furthermore, pessimists are usually better at coping with adversity. Why is this? Optimists, especially extreme or delusional optimists, do not expect things to go wrong. When they do, optimists take it hard. Pessimists expect things to go wrong and when the going gets tough, they soldier on. Pessimists can often be more resilient than optimists for these reasons.

David Collinson, a leadership academic, has published a number of articles pointing out that the leadership industry is becoming more hubristic in its approach to leadership development. In 2012, Collinson published a paper on ‘prozac’ leadership pointing out that unrealistically positive leaders can lead businesses to disaster by failing to listen to others and believing only in their own narrative. He also points out that followers are exceptionally sensitive to excessive positivity and engage in a wide range of resistance behaviours when faced with hubristic leadership.

The leadership development industry aims to improve team performance in businesses. One of the key tenets of team performance is diversity and this is becoming increasingly true in the digital era. This means embracing diversity in all of its forms. There is a good reason for promoting positive thinking in leadership, especially self-belief. Unfortunately, this has tended to include insulating yourself from criticism or doubt. This is taking it too far. Criticism and doubt are good things, provided they are constructive. Just like Mr Miyagi said, “the whole of life is balance”. Next time you see a tweet or a post telling you to surround yourself with positive people: don’t!

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2 thoughts on “Hubris in leadership development”

  1. I suppose it all depends what you mean by optimism! I fully agree that the relentless, unrealistic positivity that is sometimes prompted is unconvincing. My own observation is that one thing that leaders usefully provide is increased certainty. Humans are uncomfortable with unbounded uncertainty; the limits of those boundaries vary according to individuals, context and time. Nothing is absolutely for sure but in particularly uncertain circumstances good leaders divide what needs to be done into ‘doable’ chunks (part of mission command), each of which contains manageable amounts of uncertainty. These chunks will be different for different individuals/context/time and part of the skill of the leader is to manage these differences. doing this reassures people, not that everything will be great, but that: they are doing the right thing; by doing their bit they are reducing the overall uncertainty and making things more ‘comfortable’. The result is to maintain hope, which is not the same as optimism.
    I agree that promoting diversity in leadership teams is beneficial. It is also possible to promote diversity of thinking within individuals: models such as Disney’s creativity strategy are one way of doing this.

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