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The leadership killer

"You’ve got to get your ego out of the way, because it’s constantly wanting to take over."

5 min read



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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Bill Treasurer. 

Leadership is seductive. When you’re in a leadership role, it’s easy to slip into the idea that you’re better, smarter, and more special.

Why wouldn’t you think that, after all, given all the cues you get telling you how great you are? First, not everyone gets to be a leader, so the fact that you are one sends the message that there’s something special about you. Second, leaders get more perks. When you’re a leader, you get bigger titles, bigger workspaces, and a bigger salary. Finally, leaders get a lot more behavioral latitude. Nobody challenges you when you show up late for a meeting, interrupt people, or skirt company policies that lower level employees have to abide by.

Given the special treatment you get as a leader, some leaders start internalizing their superiority, believing that they are above the people they’re leading. Leadership comes with power, and few people are capable of handling power in a levelheaded way. Instead, power ends up inflating the leader’s ego, and even people who were kind and just before moving into a leadership role can develop an inflated view of their worth. You’ve seen it before. That diminutive guy who did a competent job managing a key project becomes a little Napoleon when he is assigned his own team.

Recently I had a conversation about the dangers of leadership seduction with my college buddy, retired Capt. John Havlik. John spent 29 years as a Navy SEAL, and has seen the damage that cocky leaders can cause.

“The thing that will get a leader into trouble every time is hubris,” he said. “When focus shifts from the mission and the team onto the leader, that mission and that team are going to be in big trouble.”

Havlik rightly points out that all you have to do is pick up the paper each day to see examples of leadership hubris. A recent example is the resignation of Uber’s cocky CEO, Travis Kalanick. His ego was on display for the world to see when a video of him arguing with an Uber driver went viral. After an avalanche of sexual harassment and other allegations, he was forced out. Uber is now challenged with cleaning up the damage that the “bro culture” Kalanick created.

As Uber’s example shows, even in hipster tech companies aren’t immune to leadership hubris. Drinking craft beer, wear skinny jeans and a bespoke tee-shirt, and sporting a beard won’t prevent hubris from harming your leadership. In July, David McClure, founder of the mentorship program 500 Startups, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. The title of the blog post he wrote after resigning says it all: “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.”

Even in the military, where you’d hope that leaders would be expected to embody nobility and principled behavior, leaders have succumbed to hubris. Wayne Grigsby, a two-star general, was stripped of a star and forced to resign for having an inappropriate relationship with one of his staff members, a female captain. Grigsby became the first division commander to be relieved of his duties in over 45 years.

More recently, seven chief petty officers of the Navy, all deployed to the same cruise missile destroyer, were punished for misconduct ranging from adultery to public drunkenness.

Taking sexual liberties with others is often the most egregious display of leadership hubris. Four-star Army Ret. Gen. David Petraeus resigned as the head of the CIA after admitting to an affair with his biographer. He also showed her classified documents. Robert Bentley resigned as governor of Alabama and agreed never to seek public office again after a number of state employees claimed that they had been threatened not to reveal an affair he eventually acknowledged having.

In my conversation with Havlik, he stressed the importance of keeping your ego in check.

“A leader always needs to remember that he or she is there to serve the mission and the team. Period. Your influence on people and situations comes from your ability to be a role model,” Havlik said. “You need to be the standard-bearer of the values that you expect the team to live by. You’ve got to get your ego out of the way, because it’s constantly wanting to take over. The thing that will neutralize hubris is humility.”

Hubris narrows a leader’s center of focus to himself, ultimately making him selfish. Humility does the opposite; it focuses first on the needs of others. Preventing hubris means remembering that you’re no better than others, regardless of what cues you’re getting about how special you are because you’ve been tasked with leading others. Serving others in the best possible way means getting out of yourself.

Captain Havlik suggests heeding the advice of another ship leader. “Spock, from ‘Star Trek,’ had it right when he said ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’ When you’re a leader, you’d do well to remember that leadership is about everybody else, not you.”


Bill Treasurer is chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. For over two decades, Treasurer has worked with thousands of leaders across the globe, strengthening their leadership influence. His newest book, “A Leadership Kick in the Ass,” provides practical tips for building confidence and humility. Bill frequently talks on leadership with Ret. Capt. John Havlik, Navy SEAL. To inquire about having Treasurer and Havlik strengthen your leaders, go to

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