The bane of CEO effectiveness – a big ego

By Pratap Nambiar for The Sunday Times

Singapore business leaders rank among the top in global database… for arrogance

I was chatting about my recent leadership coaching experiences with Mr Bob Anderson, the founder of United States-based The Leadership Circle and co-author of the book, Mastering Leadership. He wanted to know what I had observed regarding the coping strategies of leaders. My response was that I had consistently seen strong levels of arrogance and critical behaviour among leaders.

He then agreed to investigate this, looking at his client database of almost 100,000 leaders around the world developed over 15 years. The database comprises chief executive officers, business unit heads and those who report directly to them, with 60 per cent being men in the age group of 30 to 50 across manufacturing, education, government, healthcare, consulting, financial services and energy.

What he found was that within the entire database, 33 per cent can be considered highly arrogant. And when broken down by regions and countries, Singapore – at 55 per cent – had the second-highest frequency of highly arrogant leaders out of 20 countries, behind only Mexico at 75 per cent.

The database had about 500 Singapore leaders, representing predominantly men from the manufacturing, healthcare, financial services and energy sectors. The discovery of a leader’s tendency to be arrogant- and also, critical – was done through a psychometric assessment with specific questions asked about individual behaviour- answered by the leader and also by
stakeholders such as bosses, peers, those who report directly to them, and others.

Essentially, “arrogance” measures the tendency to project a large ego. It measures behaviour that is experienced as superior, egotistical and self-centred. Arrogant people act in ways that attract a lot of attention to the self, take up too much airtime, listen poorly, demonstrate a big ego, project an air of superiority or of being unapproachable, get upset easily
when ideas are challenged, and are self-righteous.

When you combine this kind of arrogance with strong critical behaviour, you get a situation where the leader is disconnected from the rest of the organisation. Usually, this is not good for an organisation as it leads to a significant gap between strategy and execution.

Here is how highly arrogant leaders are distributed across countries and regions: 29 per cent – North America (the United States and Canada); 31 per cent – the United Kingdom; 39 per cent – Africa; 44 percent – Western Europe; 48 per cent – Asia, including China, India, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand; 51 per cent-the Middle East; 52 per cent – Eastern Europe; and 60 per cent -South/Latin America.

The biggest variance within regions occurred in Western Europe and Asia – and suggests some countries may have a relatively low number of arrogant leaders, while others have a high count, and that these extremes offset each other, with the aggregate falling somewhere in the middle.

Mr Anderson also analysed specific country frequencies for those countries with sufficient numbers of leaders whose profiles have been generated by The Leadership Circle, so that statistically meaningful results could be obtained. The resulting picture is quite provocative. Apart from Singapore and Mexico, the other countries with higher proportions of leaders considered arrogant are: New Zealand and Canada, each with 28 per cent; the United States and Norway – 29 per cent; Australia- 31 per cent; the Philippines – 33 per cent; South Africa – 39 per cent; China and Switzerland, both with 41 per cent; France and Japan, both with 42 per cent; Spain – 45 per cent; Colombia, the Netherlands and Germany, each with 49 per cent; and India – 52 per cent.

To be sure, the figures are taken from a selective database developed by one particular leadership institute’s experience of assessing leadership effectiveness. It was not created to specifically research country performance. Still, its findings provide food for thought.

Mr.Anderson also conducted an analysis that correlates critical behaviour with arrogance. The result suggests that leaders who are more critical are also much more likely to be arrogant. Indeed, critical behaviour accounts for 70 per cent of the variance in arrogance scores. “Critical” is a measure of the tendency to take a critical, questioning and cynical attitude. Such behaviour can involve establishing a sense of worth by finding fault, putting others down, or being intellectually or morally superior.

Such people are usually dogmatic and rigid, mistrustful of others, have a predominantly negative attitude, blame others when things go wrong, appear to enjoy arguments and debates, and focus more on problems rather than solutions.

Why, according to the results, does Singapore appear to have a large number of arrogant leaders? I think that it is the culture and the environment in which we operate. Having had so much success over such a long period, particularly with the consistent performance of the Government and the companies linked to it, brings a sense of arrogance with it.

There is a significant tendency for people to build themselves up and keep safe at all times. Being open and vulnerable is not an option as there is a low tolerance for failure. Western countries are ahead in terms of transitioning from a patriarchal style of leadership to one of partnership, whilst Asian countries are catching up.

Coaching CEOs, particularly those with highly inflated egos, can be quite a challenge. They want to succeed, but on their terms. They are aware that they have done well enough and established an image that has helped them get to the CEO role in the first instance. So they are doing something right and, yes, they want to do better – but not at the cost of bringing down their ego a few notches.

Recently, a couple of those who report directly to a CEO told me their boss had a peculiar habit. Whenever they face a particularly challenging situation and go to him for resolution, he would respond along these lines: “If I have to give you a solution, I do not need to hire you. Don’t waste my time, and figure it out by yourself. I just want to see the final numbers”.

In one situation, the CEO, when asked to explain a rather unfriendly decision to do with a customer, reacted in annoyance: “Just tell them it is policy. They don’t need to know anything more.” The ultimate win-lose tactic of an arrogant leader is to pull rank on a subordinate to ensure full compliance without disagreement.

Quite often, I see that anger accompanies arrogance, as the leader is seeking full control and “my way or the highway” is usually a posture that ensures his will is imposed on those who report to him. If everything goes well, it is all his doing, his direction, but if something goes wrong, then everyone else is to blame.

Listening poorly because “nobody knows better than me” is an underlying belief which allows the leader to interrupt others and start telling them what they need to do. We see this a lot in meetings where the leader sucks so much airtime that many of the team members with genuinely good ideas never get a chance to present their views, and the organisation suffers.


Quite often, the facade of superiority and arrogance is covering up for a deep-rooted feeling of self-doubt and lack of self-worth. The leader feels vulnerable and does not trust his subordinates to respect him if they see his true colours.

So he has to play big, and that really means everybody around him has to be made to feel small. This is clearly a case of “I win, you lose” thinking that is definitely not in the best interest of the organisation. Teamwork and contribution through caring are sacrificed in the constant desire to project the leader’s ego, thereby losing the opportunity to tap the potential of the team. Hence, most team members underperform.

Usually the self-righteous attitude of the leader with an exaggerated sense of self is so off-putting that the team stops trying and the members either become “yes men” or totally indifferent to the situation.

I have seen CEOs who are so preoccupied with their self-image that they spend a large amount of their time engaged in PR activities, presenting themselves as the spokesmen of their industry. In reality, they are catering to their own need for self-promotion, and simply attracting attention to themselves.

You may have seen the intellectual arrogance of a leader get in the way of connecting with the hearts and minds of people. There is no understanding of the emotional needs of the team and connecting to the objectives of the business.

The selfless leader is, on the other hand, able to share credit, and focused on helping team members to fulfil their potential by listening to their needs and aligning them to the organisation’s purpose. The humility of approach, with a clear understanding that “I am here to serve”, that leadership is not “my right” but has to be earned, is the way to organisational success.

So, how do you deal with arrogance and critical behaviour? The most important step is to become selfaware – and that can only be possible through feedback. The best way to grow is to be coached to understand the internal beliefs and assumptions that drive the arrogant and critical behaviour.

A coach will help to increase authenticity by bringing up the “undiscussables”, and openly dealing with issues and problems that interfere with relationship building and achievement.

Finally, it is critical to appreciate the meaning of becoming a selfless leader- one not fuelled by personal ambition, but the strong desire to create results that serve a common good.

Pratap Nambiar is the founder of Thought Perfect, a Singapore-based organisation that provides business performance coaching to chief executive officers.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times, Singapore on March 04, 2018.