How Do Leaders Manage the Tension Between Pride and Arrogance?

SUMMING UP: James Heskett's readers agree that leaders can and should influence whether an organization crosses the line from pride to arrogance, and that it's possible to lead close to the line without crossing it.
by James Heskett

SUMMING UP: Is collective pride the primary contributor to organization arrogance?

There are three things that many respondents to this month’s column can agree on: (1) Pride is an attractive trait among members of an organization; arrogance is not. (2) Leaders’ behaviors have an important influence on whether or not an organization crosses the line from pride to arrogance. (3) It is possible to lead close to the line between pride and arrogance without crossing it; several suggestions were offered for how to do this.

Ken Johnson made the first point forcefully when he commented, “I have worked in an organization that crossed far over the line where a pride in being the most prestigious firm in their industry became arrogance… The result of this was stagnation and a rigid resistance to change, and the cost of this stagnation was tremendous.”

Leader behaviors are a major source of pride or arrogance. Martina suggested that “pride in one’s organization stems from a collective reach for excellence, civility, and a humble perspective… this is what is fostered by management teams who lead by example. Arrogance I believe comes from management first, and it is simply mimicked by team members …” Allan put it this way: “… organizations are comprised of people. If the leadership within the organizations are ‘arrogant’ … it would lead to ‘organizational arrogance,’” depending, as David Wittenberg pointed out, “… whether the people around an arrogant leader mirror his arrogance or not.”

This doesn’t have to happen, according to several respondents with suggestions for avoiding the crossover from organizational pride to arrogance. Heinrich Anker, implying that leaders need truth tellers, reminds us that “In their triumphs through ancient Rome, the emperors were always exhorted by a slave standing behind them (to) … look behind you and remember that you are also just a human being.”

Dolembo said it another way: “If managers listen … and they are rewarded for it, then arrogance is hard to develop. CEO arrogance is too common. It’s easy to close off the comment stream and believe one’s native genius.” Growtall advised leaders to continually “assess the level of pride” in an organization and “educate and re-educate its employees” about how to detect indicators of creeping arrogance.

Olufemi Adeyemi suggested that organizations can go beyond the “climate surveys” that are common today, designing a “similar survey to be administered to … every group of stakeholder outside of the company organization, to get the feedback on ‘how it feels’ doing business with the company.” Lavinia Rasca said “the answer was given by Andrew Grove in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive … (in which he recommended) being attentive to the changes in the external environment … communicating with middle managers … and leading by example, motivating employees to speak, listening to customers.”

Several asked whether the phenomenon in question is best characterized by the words “pride” and “arrogance.” For example, Jaime M said, “What you define as pride would be better stated as humility, a customer-centric focus as opposed to an organization driven focus. You can build pride around humility and it will be tempered in a positive way that reflects well on the organization …” This comment raised the question in my mind of whether it is too simplistic to think of leaders seeking to manage up to a line between pride and arrogance. Surely it matters how leaders wield organization power and handle successes when they are achieved. Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether collective pride is the primary contributor to organization arrogance. What do you think?

ORIGINAL POST: Some would say that the most important task of leadership is that of leading change. Others maintain that it’s the job of fine-tuning and preserving an organization’s culture—its values and behaviors—to enable it to execute successful strategies.

Recent events, including several well-publicized corporate missteps as well as statements made during the recent United States presidential campaigns, suggest that managing the tension between pride and arrogance is one of the most difficult, sensitive issues facing leaders.

The consequences when organizations cross the line between pride and arrogance can be substantial. Just ask leaders like the erstwhile CEO of Lululemon—a company with a well-timed dedication to fitness with employees fanatical about its mission—who forgot this when he apologized to employees for a snafu in introducing a fabric into the Company’s athletic garments that, when stretched, became transparent. He went on to explain on Bloomberg TV that “Some women’s bodies don’t work for the pants.” Employee behaviors began reflecting this attitude, according to complaints lodged against the company. The hit to Lululemon’s bottom line was reasonably immediate and significant. It cost the CEO his job.

There is a real pay-off from building pride among an organization’s employees. It can result in greater loyalty, higher productivity, and lower recruiting and training costs, among other things. Ways that pride is fostered include an inspiring mission, a set of values that are carefully observed, a “way of doing things around here” that is consistent with expectations, an organization that brings people together in teams to carry out their tasks, and an effort to ensure that the organization is a good corporate citizen, often through group activities away from the job.

In short, employee pride can serve an organization in many ways—until it doesn’t. That’s the point at which arrogance among proud employees begins to get in the way of effective relationships with customers, suppliers, and even investors. At a national level, it can damage international relations. Here’s a sample of some indicators of differences between pride and arrogance:


  • We work for the customer
  • We worry about what we can learn from others
  • We’re open to the outside world
  • We’re still David
  • We spend our time listening to, and hearing, outside views.


  • We work for each other
  • We worry about what others can learn from us
  • We practice secrecy in dealing with the outside world
  • We’re Goliath, and we need to defend our position
  • We spend our time improving what we have and finding flaws in outside views

What can leaders do to ensure that arrogance isn’t the unintended result of efforts to build pride in an organization? Is this relevant for political as well as business leaders? How do you manage the tension between pride and arrogance? What do you think?

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