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ATD Blog

Being a Good Leader Doesn’t Require Being a Bad Person


In the book, The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, my co-author Bill Treasurer and I identify hubris (self-conceit) as the single most lethal leadership flaw of all leaders, at any level, in any organization. Our primary goal in writing the book was to help those in charge recognize the signs that their own arrogance may be (or is) getting out of hand, plus offer seasoned tips, advice, and strategies toward becoming (and staying) an effective, confident, and humble leader.

The power (and perks) associated with increased positions of power and authority is enticing. The better parking space, the higher-floored office with more windows (and better views), the bigger salary (and bonus), the more staff assigned to handle your every beck and call . . . it’s totally natural for a leader to become seduced by these extras, get spoiled, and want more and more. The most important thing to remember as someone in charge is to not cross the fine line of what you’re entitled to and what you think you’re entitled to.

Examples of leaders who crossed that line because their egos became swelled by their own “specialness,” as Bill calls it, are prolific. Countless books (to include our own), articles, and blogs have been written on leadership gone bad. And yet, despite all these examples, leadership abuses continue to happen. And why do good leaders continue to go bad? Hubris! And this inflated self-importance causes normally good superiors to think they are entitled to any and all perks—even ones that cross the ethical lines of common decency—and to also think that no one will notice, nor will anyone tell, of their abuses. Threats of negative performance reports, demotions, and even firings are common tools used by abusive leaders to keep their minions silent. Is this the type of leader or boss you want to be? Is this the type you want to work for?

Here are three recommendations that helped me become (and stay) a better leader and person.


Walk the Deck Plates

During one of my overseas assignments, I made time in my busy schedule to push away from my desk and do a walkabout while inspecting the weekly cleanup. This allowed me to interact with my sailors while ensuring that the unit and its spaces were clean before going home for weekend liberty. During these walkabouts, I made it a point to meet all my sailors, look them in the eye, shake their hands, and learn their full names, their backgrounds, their families, and most importantly, the issues that were affecting them (and ultimately the command). I was always amazed at what I learned through these walkabouts, and how positively my sailors responded to me because I was taking some of my precious time to meet, talk with, and learn about them.

Open Your Mental Aperture

Heads-up: You don’t know it all, and you have to fight against the natural inclination to think that you do when you get in charge. Your subordinates ultimately have the solutions to any and all issues you may encounter in whatever profession you’re in, but you, the leader, must have the internal fortitude to turn off your ego and learn to learn directly from them. It’s OK to admit you don’t know everything as a leader; and by asking questions of your people, you gain their respect because they are directly helping you (and the organization) become smarter and better.

Have a “Check”

You can’t manage your own ego by yourself. As you climb the leadership ladder, you’ve got to find, and learn to rely on, a few select individuals to help manage it also. The stronger the relationship you have with your “checks,” the more truthful they’ll be with you, and most importantly, call you out when your ego starts becoming overbearing or too inflated.


It pays to remember that good, humble leaders are those who can:

  • make time to push away from their desk
  • leave their hubris in the office
  • talk to their people.

By turning off your hubris and holding the organization’s mission as more important than your own self-interests, the people you lead will have a lot more confidence in you. Try it!

Join Bill Treasurer and me at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition for our session, The Dangerous Leader: Lessons on Leadership Arrogance and Humility. We will explore the dangers of leadership hubris and provide ready-to-deploy tips for ego-governance and to build humility.

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Being a leader requires a combination of people skills as well as professional skills. Wonderfully put John! I came across a platform ( which helps to perform as a leader. Care to check it out?
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Very well articulated, John! As a U.S. Navy veteran myself, I can certainly empathize and appreciate all that you shared. Thank you for your humility and authenticity!
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I agree that being crowned a leader often seems to short-circuit natural empathy. However, I also see another common dilemma which causes short- and long-term harm to organizations and their employeees: the need to be “nice” and to not offend or “hurt people’s feelings” causes confusion and frustration, especially for talent who want the truth. Clarity and trust are built on knowing where one stands, and on knowing that one’s leader will speak honestly, in spite of short-term “ouches”.
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