The greatest barrier to changing dysfunctional behavior is denial or justification of the behavior. Leaders are prone to discount the importance of their destructive behavior on the grounds that up to now it hasn’t prevented them from attaining success.
Often, however, the leader has been successful because of a less extreme and more functional version of this behavior, or because of another trait used in tandem with the destructive behavior. Vices and virtues are extensions of the same underlying quality. If courageous followers can help a leader distinguish between the destructive behavior and a related virtue, and can affirm the importance of the virtue, they may be able to open the leader to transformation:
“You’ve always inspired people with graphic visions of a bet- ter future and made a positive difference in their lives. What you’re doing now is different because it’s covering up information and misrepresenting this investment as more attractive than it is.”
“You may think it’s the staff’s fear of your anger that gets them to do what you want, but it’s actually your determination and commitment. The anger just erodes their willingness to support you and the organization.”
“Hubris” is that marvelous classical word that sums up the danger to those who have experienced success. It is defined as “insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride.” It can be lethal to the leader and the common purpose.
History and the daily newspaper are strewn with examples of hubris brought to its knees, of successful lives ruined by self-defeating behavior: billionaires sent to jail, CEOs ousted by boardroom rebellions, national figures tarred by prejudices that slip out in public speech, labor leaders pilloried for misappropriating funds, celebrities dead from drug overdoses. We may need to remind the leader of such stories in painful detail. Each form of hubris has its examples, its warnings for others. The individuals in these examples were also once in exalted positions, too successful to heed warnings up until the moment of their downfall.
If ever courage is called for, it is when followers need to confront supremely confident leaders who are at the pinnacle of their careers, and tell them that their hundred-foot yachts are about to run into reefs and sink unless they make a radical change in course. If successful leaders are fortunate, they will have courageous followers in their crew.