If you’re leading a company or a team, you likely have an outsized desire for greatness. That’s bold. You might also think you can put a unique spin on things in a way no one else can. That’s hubris.
And that’s (mostly) okay. The fact is you need that mentality in order to do something that’s new, different and world-class. But at the same time, you also need to be able to back up what you say. Your “say-to-do” ratio needs to be high. After all, your vision doesn’t matter unless it becomes a reality. In other words, you need to deliver.
All of this makes common sense, but the fact is there’s a fine line between boldness and hubris. We’ve all experienced how some people can infect you with their enthusiasm, while others can antagonize you with their arrogance (and we all know the impression it imparts is anything but subtle).
Not to let anyone off the hook for bad behavior, but many leaders, including good ones, fall victim to this problem. There’s a funny paradox that happens as you rise in your career. Initially, no one believes in you very much and you have to be bold and loud just to break through the resistance, but later, once you’ve “made it” and are in a position of power, everyone listens to you. Here are some ways to keep your bold attitude at the forefront and keep the hubris at bay:
• Show vulnerability. It builds trust. I remember thinking that revealing any vulnerability would be a sign of weakness. I was so worried when I got hearing aids in my 40s, thinking my career was over. How wrong was I about that! It’s counterintuitive, but I found the more vulnerabilities I shared, the more grace I received. As an executive, you feel pressure to be perfect, but the more human you are, the more genuine and authentic you appear, the more people will relate to you and support you.
• Jump on the fumble. Every pro fumbles. When you do make a mistake, jump on it. Apologize or explain it, fix it and move on. I learned this at eBay when I had to implement a hiring shut down. It was necessary for the business, and it was effective, but we did it in an inelegant way that left managers feeling disempowered, poorly communicated to and very bitter. We realized our mistake and apologized at a meeting. We received a nice round of applause for that and I learned that I needed to be more inclusive of everyone next time. But it’s important to note that you cannot make a habit of making mistakes. Making large mistakes or routine errors erodes trust, and no one can survive that.
• Your critics are your greatest mentors. Sure, it sounds great to have everyone rally around you and think you are awesome—until you recall the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. When you strip away the good feelings that come with people saying nice things about your every move, you realize you don’t just want “yes” people around you. “Yes” people, the people who support you and never question you, won’t help you get any better. Instead of only having people who are drinking your happy juice, you need to have someone around you who’s honest and critical. That is what will help you stay true to what you are good at and also help you get better at what you haven’t yet mastered. It’s hard to do this, so put policies in place that help. At my investment network, WIN, I’m the final decision-maker on every investment, but that doesn’t mean people always have to agree with me. Everybody individually explores every deal and comes up with his or her own decision and then we review everything together. And their opinion counts: We have a “silver bullet” clause where once a year they have the authority to veto me and invest in a company I don’t want to.
• Stay humble and don’t read your own press clippings! You cannot drink your own Kool-Aid. You have to be tougher on yourself as you advance in your career. Of course, you should believe in yourself, and be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but only feel that for two seconds. Don’t let your ego get ahead of your capabilities. Instead of getting too cocky, we have to all remember where we came from and recognize that no one gets where they are without a fair number of breaks. Pay attention to that, thank the people who helped you, and pay it forward by helping others the same way.
Once you’ve made it, you’re expected to know all of the answers. And you’re not expected to have any doubts. That’s so unrealistic. No one’s perfect—and being promoted or taking the reins, or doing well, doesn’t suddenly make you so.
With experience, you learn that being the best you can be doesn’t mean doing everything right, it means constantly striving to be better. You also learn that the behavior and aggressive stance that was essential to your success early in your career can derail your success in the next part of your career. So temper the hubris, tame the arrogance, but never stop being brave and bold.