Are you an arrogant s.o.b? Don’t answer that: Because if you are, you’d be the last to know.

By my count, more business leaders have failed and derailed because of arrogance than any other character flaw.  It’s the easiest human foible to acquire and justify—and the hardest to recognize in yourself.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger tested students at Cornell University on a range of subjects from logical reasoning to grammar to the ability to spot a funny joke.  They compared how well people thought they did versus how well they actually did.  “Overall, people overestimated themselves,” said Dunning.  “And those who did worst were most likely to think they had outperformed everyone else. Incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent.”

Herb Kelleher, chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines, once wrote in his annual letter to all employees that, “The number one threat is us.”  He went on to say, “We must not let success breed complacency; cockiness; greediness; laziness; indifference; preoccupation with nonessentials; bureaucracy; hierarchy; quarrelsomeness; or obliviousness to threats posed by the outside world.”

So how do you prevent this kind of thing from happening—"to you and your team? The only safeguard is self-discipline.  Here are some pretty basic rules:

  • The roots of arrogance lie in insecurity.  How likely are you to feel slighted by accolades for others? Do you find yourself (or hear your staff) saying nastily competitive things like: “How can she possibly deserve all the attention she’s getting?” (The unspoken addendum is: “Especially at my expense.”) Let your team have the good ideas once in a while, or a success. The only person who sees that as a slight to you is you.
  • Learn to recognize arrogance among your employees.  Sure, you want confident and aggressive players, but there’s often a short separation between a useful team member and a smug or boastful one. One clue: Look at how each team member affects the others: Do they energize each other and make other members more competent? Or do they make themselves popular by putting competitors down?
  • Don’t fall in love with your wit.  Your cleverly turned phrase may not, as you hope, show off how much gray matter you have, especially if the phrase is at someone else’s expense. Everyone will laugh because you’re the boss, so you have to restrain yourself. Whenever you feel like you’re about to deliver a Jon-Stewart-worthy witticism, take a refreshing pause, and think before you decide to be cute.
  • Remember you’re not entitled to anything. You have to earn your success every day, and you will make mistakes like everyone else.

A classic story illustrates this point. A minister, a boy scout, and a computer executive were flying to a meeting in a small private plane.  About halfway to their destination, the pilot came back and announced that the plane was going to crash and that there were only three parachutes and four people.

The pilot said, “I am going to use one of the parachutes because I have a wife and four small children,” and he jumped.

The computer executive said, “I should have one of the parachutes because I am the smartest man in the world and my company needs me,” and he jumped.

The minister turned to the boy scout and, smiling sadly, said, “You are young and I have lived a good, long life, so you take the last parachute and I’ll go down with the plane.”

The boy scout said, “Relax, Reverend, the smartest man in the world just strapped on my backpack and jumped out of the plane!”

Mackay’s Moral:  Those who don’t know, don’t know they don’t know.