One night over dinner, I listened to a wise military leader share his experience with an eager, newly minted General. He asked the new General, "Recently, have you started to notice that when you tell jokes, everyone erupts into laughter, and that when you say something 'wise' everyone nods their heads in solemn agreement?" The new General replied, "Why, yes, I have." The older General laughed and said, "Let me help you. You aren't that funny and you aren't that smart. It's only that star on your shoulder. Don't ever let it go to your head."
We all want to hear what we want to hear. We want to believe those great things that the world is telling us about ourselves. It's our belief in ourselves that helps us become successful. But it can also make it very hard for us to change. As the wise older General noted, we aren't really that funny, and we aren't really that smart. But we can all get better if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves. By understanding why changing behavior can be so difficult for leaders, we can increase the likelihood of making the changes that we need to make in our quest to become even more successful.
We all delude ourselves about our achievements, our status, and our contributions. We overestimate our contribution to a project, have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and standing among our peers, or exaggerate our project's impact on profitability by discounting real and hidden costs.
Many of our delusions come from our association with success, not failure. We get positive reinforcement from our successes and we think they are predictive of a great future. The fact that successful people tend to be delusional isn't all bad. Our belief in our wonderfulness gives us confidence. Even though we are not as good as we think we are, this confidence actually helps us be better than we would become if we did not believe in ourselves.
Although our self-confident delusions can help us achieve, they can make it difficult for us to change. In fact, when others suggest that we need to change, we may respond with unadulterated bafflement.
It's an interesting three-part response. First, we are convinced that the other party is confused. They are misinformed, and they just don't know what they are talking about. They must have us mixed up with someone who truly does need to change. Second, as it dawns upon us that the other party is not confused--maybe their information about our perceived shortcomings is accurate--we go into denial mode. This criticism may be correct, but it can't be that important--or else we wouldn't be so successful. Finally, when all else fails, we may attack the other party. We discredit the messenger. "Why is a winner like me," we conclude, "listening to a loser like you?"
These are just a few of our initial responses to what we don't want to hear. Couple this with our overconfidence in the power of a) our past performance; b) our ability to influence our success (as opposed to just being lucky); c) our belief that our success will continue in the future, and; d) our outsized sense of control over our own destiny (as opposed to being controlled by external forces), and you have a volatile cocktail of resistance to change.
So, as you can see, while your positive beliefs about yourself helped you become successful, these same beliefs can make it tough to change. The same beliefs that helped you get to our current level of success can inhibit you from making the changes needed to stay there - or move forward. Don't fall into this trap!
As the wise older General noted, as you move up the ranks and get that star--don't let it go to your head. Realize that every success can make it harder to change. Always balance the confidence that got you where you are with the humility required to get you where you have the potential to go.