Pride – A Leadership Killer

“I am really really really really really proud of the people that we have.”  This was one of the last comments Sipho Nkosi made before we closed our leadership conversation with him at his Exxaro office, just outside of Centurion, some time ago.

Nkosi is the CEO of Exxaro Resources and former president of the Chamber of Mines South Africa where he served three terms.  Exxaro is the third largest global producer of mineral sands and South Africa’s second largest coal producer.

Nkosi has enjoyed many successes along his leadership journey, yet he attributes much of what he has been able to accomplish to those he works with – his team.

He goes on to say: “Pride is also important in the sense that I would be wrong not to say that I am very proud of the people I work for – Exxaro – to help this organization move to where it is.  I really am – I must be honest with you.  I am also proud and privileged to have served and led and been allowed to preside over this organization during these very troubled times.”

What an impressive phrase -“…the people I work for…”

This expression epitomizes the kind of leader Nkosi is.  And it’s not all talk.  Prior to our meeting with him, we engaged with some senior leaders that have worked with him and they sang his praises, sharing much that he would never say himself because of the type of man he is.

Today we are talking about pride.

In many ways it is a virtue, Aristotle being a major proponent of this view.  But in many ways it can also be a “leadership killer”.

Let us consider these telling extracts: “… [Pride] is commonly related to expressions of aggression and hostility (Tangney 1999) …[has] a tendency to create conflict and sometimes terminating close relationships (Rhodwalt, et al.)”  Both Tangney and Rhodwalt are social psychologists, and Dr Terry Cooper, Professor of Psychology at St Louis Community College, and author of several books on psychotherapy and psychology, references them in his research on the effects of pride.

So what is the difference between what Nkosi describes as an ‘Achilles heel’ that many leaders everywhere have to deal with, and the pride he so openly expresses about his people?

It really is as simple as the difference between ‘I’ and ‘we’.

What this comes right down to is that all of us are insecure about something.  We all have weaknesses.  And often the manner in which we attempt to deal with or hide those weaknesses and insecurities results in what others may experience as pride, but the educated eye understands this as a “[neurotic pride system underlies] an appearance of self-contempt and low self-esteem.”

Cynthia Picket, another social psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of California, says it this way: “…pompous displays of group pride might actually be a sign of group insecurity as opposed to a sign of strength.”  She believes that “In contrast, those groups that expressed pride by humbly focusing on members’ efforts and hard work tended to have high social standing in both the public and personal eyes.”

So how does this apply to us as leaders?

Pride is a leadership killer when we allow it to create a personal, emotional barrier between us and our people.  Why a ‘leadership killer’?  Because leadership is all about creating movement, and any barrier, especially within a personal relationship that is part of a structured team, will hinder this movement and its creation.

Great leaders have always had the ability to remove anything that might create a sense of difference and its accompanying feelings of dissonance and discord.  Great leaders know that they are, in effect, the ‘final say’ and ‘king of the hill’ but they also know this – from Nkosi again: “I can’t be an autocratic leader because I will kill this organization.”

In an attempt to discover whether the pride you feel is of value or not, the simple question of “Why?” can be asked:  Why do I drive this big car?  Why do I wear the clothing that I wear?  Why do I feel the way I do when I am with these people?

As an emotion, and in psychological terms, pride is “a pleasant, sometimes exhilarating, emotion that results from a positive self-evaluation”.  However, if your positive self-evaluation is based in and upon a comparison with anyone/anything external where you feel positive because you find yourself in a position where you are “one up”, then you are in danger of the destructive, ‘leadership killer’ pride that you must avoid at all costs.

As soon as we move from ‘I, me, myself’ to ‘you, us, and we’, we can be assured that we are moving in the right direction.

When asked how he deals with pride, Nkosi shared this: “Easy, I quickly learned as a young person that I am a nobody. I have found that by being humble, by being accessible, by being who I am, I get to access a lot of people and I get to learn as much as possible about people, about myself, about life and about the future. I suppose the last important thing is your faith.  I think faith plays a key role in life and gave me those things as well because for as long as I understand that I’m not alone, that we are all equal, that is the most important thing for me. It’s quite critical because without that value system, the value system that I acquired, I wouldn’t be where I am.  It’s important.”

Once again we see how the principle of uniting our people around common values is so important.  This doesn’t mean we have to share the same faith, but we do need to agree on what is most important and what one is not allowed to compromise.  Pride creeps in as a leadership killer only when we allow a ‘we’ to become an ‘I’.

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Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

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