The scourge of personal exceptionalism

Posted by on Sep 13, 2010 in Managing self | 0 comments

With fair regularity, someone will ask me, “What is the single most important thing for a leader to do to be successful?” In other words, “What’s the secret to good management?” Of course, there’s no good answer. There are many paths to management success, and, sadly, none of them is particularly well trodden.

But for every path to success, there seem to be at least 10 highways to failure, and traffic is always jammed on those. There’s no shortage of bad management and leadership out there. Dilbert is funny for good reason: Most of our bosses are, shall we say, suboptimal.

But I have begun to notice a single pattern that I’d call one of the most common paths to failure: Managers with a sense of personal exceptionalism seem to have a particularly tough time, both in business and in life.

Personal exceptionalism is a feeling that one is not like other people. For some reason, a person believes that he is special and better than everyone else — that he is apart and above. The exceptional person has more than a grand view of himself — he has a grandiose one.

This isn’t the same as self-confidence or healthy self-esteem. Confident people have a sense of their own competencies (and deficiencies), but they don’t believe that they have transcended the boundaries of ordinary humanity. They still exist on the same plane as the rest of us, even if they harbor a belief in their own abilities. Those with healthy self-esteem have generally positive feelings about themselves and their value, but this doesn’t lead them to believe that they must be judged by a different set of standards than everyone else.

Personal exceptionalism is also not the same as group exceptionalism. Believing that one’s team is truly special and apart is quite different. (It brings its own problems, but that’s a different story.)

I suspect that some people arrive in management with this problem already well established. In fact, they may seek leadership roles because of their sense of exceptionality: “I deserve this role and, in fact, no one else is as qualified as I am.” But they may also acquire this delusion after assuming the job. If enough people tell you how wonderful you are, how special you are, at some point there’s a temptation to believe it. It’s easy to forget that all the flattery and favors that come with leadership are usually aimed at the role, not its inhabitant.

So, what’s the big deal? How does a bit of excessive pride lead to misery?

People who feel that they are exceptional think rules are meant for “regular” people. So they tend to take liberties that the rest of us would never consider. Sometimes it’s about relatively small things. They think their time is more precious than the rest of ours, so they deliberately show up at meetings 10 minutes late to avoid having to wait for anyone else. They park their Hummer in the compact spot because it’s closer to the office, and they blame building management for putting in too few regular spaces. They always eat the doughnuts but never bring them.

Transgressions can grow over time. Embezzlement, insider trading and sexual harassment are not uncommon for people with these personality types. But they can justify anything to themselves on the basis of their own exceptionalism. They see themselves as special people and feel that they can’t be judged by our rules.

But well short of the criminal, managers with this sense of self fail spectacularly. That’s because demonstrating contempt for one’s staff doesn’t inspire confidence, and even minor violations of the cultural rules of behavior undermine credibility. When these people violate the rules that they lay down for others, they are quickly branded as hypocrites and lose credibility on all issues.

Leaders with this misconception also tend to be rather unhappy people, no matter what they portray outwardly. They judge themselves by their own grandiose standards and rarely measure up. The perpetual sense of shame for not actually being as exceptional as they feel can be a crushing burden.

So, if you detect any feelings of exceptionalism creeping into your personality, nip them in the bud. Guarding against personal exceptionalism may not be enough to guarantee management success, but it’s a great start if you want to head a productive group and lead a happy life.

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