Overconfident Leader Danger – The Hubristic Leader

Leading overconfidently with hubris with excessive pride and little agility has no place in leadership, particularly at the C-level. Although we’ve all seen it, this behavior can’t be tolerated or accepted as a norm. Great leaders call on their team, colleagues, clients, and bosses for honest advice and welcome collaboration.


Nobody can be a subject matter expert in all areas. Executives must embrace their colleagues’ and bosses’ value and advice versus making arrogance-based decisions.  Leaders who protect their team’s value at the expense of productivity and accuracy are particularly egregious. They instill a protective barrier that breaks down communication between other departments, peers, and their bosses.

How Overconfidence Affects an Organization

It has been proven repeatedly that overconfidence causes destruction. C-suite leaders must understand that decisions on the executive level have deep and lasting impacts. It destroys relationships, alienates teams and can lead to massive mistakes.

Leaders with humility have stronger company performance and are less prone to error.  Whereas overly confident leaders cost their company valuable credibility and have a much higher chance of being fired. Humble leaders admit their mistakes while arrogant leaders are unable to acknowledge their errors or recognize areas in which they can improve.

Overconfidence is a trait often acquired via increased power. As a leader’s power grows, more often than not, it becomes harder for the leader to admit mistakes or wrongdoings of any kind. Thus, they are more unwilling to learn from their mistakes to achieve a successful outcome.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

A possible reason for this kind of overconfident behavior is attributed to a psychological theory called the “Dunning-Kruger effect. Leaders who experience this have a low ability to complete the task with an overconfidence that they can do it. Without the process of meta-cognitiion and self-awareness, leaders who experience the Dunning-Kruger effect, will not be able to fully learn from errors.

An additional study involved executive level participants reading a list of statements, then taking a survey on the subjects of those statements. Note that some of the subjects were actually fiction presented as fact. Participants then read a second list of statements and had to identify which they had read before and which were new. The arrogant participants were much more confident in their wrong answers being right, and the more humble ones chose the new statements more often.

Further research shows that leaders with more learning agility have more humility. This humility comes with more willingness to learn from mistakes, take more advice from peers and bosses, and change behavior and outcomes.

I define learning agility as the ability to change our behaviors and practices based on reflections from failures and successes.

Several practices that go along with learning agility are:

  1. Listen without distraction
  2. Mirror back understanding
  3. Hold after action reviews
  4. Perform a cost/benefit analysis of what to change
  5. Follow-up
  6. Measure changes

Destructive Examples of Overconfidence in Leadership

Unfortunately, it’s probably not difficult to recall an example of your own experience of overconfidence in leadership. This type of behavior can occur in a variety of settings.

One of the most devastating effects of overconfidence was the egotistical failure of the FBI and CIA to share information ahead of the terror attacks of September 11. In this case, their overconfidence combined with an almost sociopathic tendency to insist that they each were correct led to the death of thousands of innocent people. When leaders make decisions based on their own personal strategies and ideals versus doing what is right for the greater good, the end is often catastrophic.

Another well-known example of overconfidence was Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of Enron. After his initial retirement from Enron, he returned to the company to bring it back to its former glory. The company was floundering, and he was determined to save it. Instead of admitting the position they were in and asking for help, Lay resorted to unethical accounting to cover the flaws. As a result, thousands of employees and stockholders were left in financial ruin.

Interventions for Overconfident Leaders

The good news is that specific interventions can be put in place to lessen the impact of possible overconfident decision making. As expected, overconfident leaders are completely certain that they are not at fault. They may acquiescently make small adjustments to mitigate the situation, but those rarely take hold. So how do we manage or even halt this type of leadership?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Engage in after action reviews after mistakes are made. Create a plan on how to do better next time and a separate plan on how to enforce it.
  2. Commit to learning agility. Be open to the fact that there could be better ways to solve the problem, and commit to considering alternate solutions.
  3. Hold the team accountable. If the leader can’t do it all, then the entire team must be held accountable for researching options and bringing relevant information to the table in order to implement the optimal solution.
  4. Encourage humility. Ask questions and reinforce the fact that it is ok to say, “I don’t know.”
  5. Search for developmental opportunities. Both leaders and their teams should be committed to continuously develop each other through practicing courageous conversations and holding each other accountable for a new culture of openness and psychological safety.
  6. Instill company values and ethics. Consistently review areas of improvement where constructive criticism is encouraged and high ethical standards are lauded.

A Final Word

It’s important to remember that as a leader there is a fine line between humility and overconfidence. While it’s ok to be confident, it’s important to be aware of where that confidence lies and how it affects the organization. Overconfident Leadership destroys relationships which, in turn, can quickly destroy a business. Seek to balance both humility and confidence.


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