From Arrogance to Servant Leadership

Arrogance can be a dangerous trait. It can blind one to unintended consequences and put many at risk. And it’s not a characteristic reserved only for individuals; organizations are fully capable of behaving arrogantly, as well. Pushback and failures can serve as wake-up calls; seeing our reflections through the eyes of others can do the same. Not all of us feel obliged to reshape our leadership style when confronted with such circumstances, but for those of us that do, the journey is humbling.

My arrogance began as a shield for insecurity and wasn’t tested until I was president of a manufacturing company. In that role, I visited a potential midwestern-based supplier, a subsidiary of a Fortune 500, at their invitation. At the time, our company was in great shape and we had a longterm contract with our major customer. I had little interest in visiting this supplier—and it showed. On the plant tour I was critical of the operations; in the conference room, I insinuated that our hosts may be copying some of our IP; and at dinner, I was caustic. Finally, in the middle of the meal, the president of our host stood up, threw his napkin on the table, said “I can’t take this any more,” and walked out. The next morning, with little conversation, our hosts drove us to the airport. I had been railroaded out of town and I owned the result. I was humbled.

Here’s another example of arrogance in action: A client of mine had manufactured a family of parts for a Fortune 500 company since the parts were first designed. The client always performed—excellent quality and on-time delivery.  Periodically, but not annually, the client would raise prices modestly to help cover increases in material and labor costs not regained through efficiencies. The time came when the customer said they would not accept a price increase and in fact demanded a reduction of 7% the first year and 2% per year after that.  With respect, my client declined and the customer insisted they send in a team of engineers to show my client how the cost reductions could be accomplished. With quiet confidence, my client declined the offer and the customer moved to another supplier.  Six months later, the customer returned, accepted the last price increase offered and shifted the business back.

And another: The president of a major northeast distributor had made the decision to sell his business. He retained a well-known ‘banker’ to assist in that process. We had done most of the preparation, including writing the offering memorandum, leaving the banker to use his connections to find prospective buyers and ultimately run the “auction” process. While a senior executive of the bank had sold us on his team’s merger and acquisition skills, a relatively new employee was assigned to manage our process. The first potential buyer visited and, after a facilities tour, we sat together in the president’s office, he behind his desk and the potential buyer, the junior banker and me on the other side. Three of us were fully engaged in Q&A and initial negotiations; the overconfident junior banker was not. He sat off to the side reading a financial paper and never engaged at all. Once the buyer left, we told the banker his services were no longer required.

Just one more: In negotiating with a team of businessmen from the Far East, an executive failed to rein in his arrogant behavior. His stride, his disregard for detail, his lack of respect in listening, and the abruptness of his responses quickly alienated him; he was tolerated solely for business purposes. Once a draft contract was reached, bound by a non-disclosure agreement already in place, all present reaffirmed there would be no public disclosure of the arrangement without the other party’s consent. It took less than 12 hours after departing for the executive to issue a press release without consent. I had remained behind and was called to a special meeting with the businessmen to “explain.” They were respectful to me but not about him. We concluded our meeting on good terms and they gifted me with a translation of one of their more descriptive expressions: “Once a stone, always a stone.”

The path from arrogance to servant leadership has many obstacles, the biggest one being oneself. The arrogant corporation that had demanded price reductions changed for my client’s sake, but went on to alienate much of its critical supply base. The junior banker was able to rein in his overconfidence and the “stone” remained a “stone.” For me, the embarrassment and shame I felt when called out for my behavior served as a mirror into which I’ve looked many times since. I came to realize arrogance was a shield, not a leadership trait.

Not all complete the journey to servant leadership. For me, it is a path worth following and I travel it every day.

Lesson learned.


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