A Big Fat Lesson for Leaders With Overinflated Egos

It might be tempting to think there’s a fine line between self-confident and self-delusional leaders. That a perfectly rational guy wakes up one day and, without realizing he’s gotten too close to the edge of terra firma, suddenly finds himself plummeting into the dark abyss of a wildly overinflated ego.

Don’t be so tempted. That’s not the way it works. Having walked the hallowed halls of Silicon Valley for decades and spent thousands of hours in boardroom chairs with just as many highly accomplished executives, bankers and venture capitalists, I can say with great certainty that each individual reacts to success in one of two discrete ways – exactly as programmed.

I’m not implying that we are machines fated to fulfill a destiny encoded in our DNA from the moment we’re born. On the contrary, I think we all start out with more or less a clean slate and it’s our experience – how we utilize the gifts our forebears instill in us to adapt to our circumstances and do with them as we will – that largely determines the outcome.

That said, when you reach a point where life has rewarded you with fame and fortune and you’re relatively certain that it wasn’t just blind luck but the result of your own actions, at that point you are more or less programmed to go down one of two paths.

Maybe you get a little full of yourself, which is entirely normal given that you’ve done some great things and everyone says you walk on water. But then life has a funny way of reminding you that you’re not so special after all. Sooner or later it rains failure down on your fat head and brings you right back to Earth, soaking wet.

So you dry yourself off, let the truth of what just happened penetrate the copious layers of bravado and testosterone (yes, women have some too), learn from your mistakes, and get right back out there, albeit with a little more perspective and a lot more humility this time. Rinse and repeat. That’s the path of self-awareness.

Some of us, on the other hand, are programmed differently. The same things happens – fat head, rain, failure and all that – but instead of plopping back to Earth like a 30 gallon bag of wet laundry, learning from your mistakes and being all the better for it, you react in an entirely different way.

You’re simply not willing to accept that you’re anything less than the image of greatness your oversized ego has bestowed upon you, probably because that would make you feel small and powerless. Instead you make believe it never happened by locking it away in a convenient little compartment deep in the folds of your gray matter, never to be heard from again.

Then you pump up your injured little ego with all the bluster you can muster and lie through your teeth and blame somebody else. Rinse and repeat.

I’ve watched executives and business leaders go down that path countless times over the years. Often something goes terribly and publicly wrong and they can no longer hide from the truth. They usually pay a pretty steep price either personally or professionally. Some even serve jail or prison time. One or two are still serving time.

Sometimes that happens, sometimes it never does. I’m not sure which is worse. They may seem to live in denial but, on some level, they know the truth. As John Lennon once sang, “Instant Karma’s gonna get you,” and I do believe that sooner or later it usually does. The truth has a funny way of coming back to haunt us.

What got me thinking about this was a clip of then Senator Barack Obama from 2007:

“I truly believe that the day I’m inaugurated, not only does the country look at itself differently, but the world looks at America differently. If I’m reaching out to the Muslim world, they understand that I’ve lived in a Muslim country and I may be a Christian but I also can understand their point of view. I think that the world will have confidence that I am listening to them. That will ultimately make us safer…”

Commenting on the ISIS reign of terror and occupation of vast areas of Syria and Iraq, Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume recently said of President Obama, “This is a man whose vision of the world he had when he took office has turned out to be a mirage. And his own sense of the world and how it would react to him has also turned out to be a mirage. This is a man who told someone I know, ‘Wouldn’t it be great for the world if I were president’.”

Not to pick on the president, but there is a lesson here for all of us that either see ourselves as success stories or success stories in the making. If your self-image does not match reality, if it isn’t genuine, it will break down eventually and things will not end well for you. Don’t ask me why, but this happens to a significant percentage of successful people.

If you see a sign that your ego is writing checks that reality can’t cash, do something about it. Don’t live in denial. An overinflated ego is like any bubble. Sooner or later it’s bound to burst and come crashing back down to Earth.