When Arrogance Meets Anger in Leadership

Most of us are familiar with the type. We’ve worked with them and maybe even tried to love them – individuals who live in a state of perennial woundedness. You know what I mean – the kind of people who are never happy unless they’re aggrieved. These are the folks who constantly see themselves as victims, objects of someone else’s unfair critique. They are hypersensitive to the criticisms of others and hypercritical of those around them. Never in doubt, and incapable of apology, they frequently interpret challenge as an attack on personal integrity. They are forever on guard against every slight, real or perceived.

Unfortunately, this kind of narcissistic behavior is not unique to friends and family. Far too many leaders manifest similar traits: CEOs who regularly misread differences of opinion as signs of obloquy and disloyalty; clergy who profess to welcome inquiry, but only if their teachings are embraced uncritically; elected officials who cannot accept yes for an answer and are constantly preparing for what they are certain is the next ambush.

Victims of imagined calumny, driven by insecurities, these are angry, often raging, people, unable to get out of their own way. Possessed by a sense of entitlement and what Patrick Lencioni refers to as a need for “terminal correctness,” they blame others for their troubles, and are not above manipulating “facts” to suit their own agendas. As damaging as they can be in the private realm, when they assume positions of leadership they destroy companies, organizations, and nations.

Judaism’s ethical literature (sifrut ha’musar) has a great deal to teach about this phenomenon, beginning with the relationship between arrogance and anger in leadership. According to the sixteenth century mystic, Hayyim Vital, “pride and anger are a single quality.” An inability to get beyond one’s ego impedes a leader’s ability to access the information she needs to lead effectively. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, author of The Path of the UprightMesillat Yesharim (MY), argues that, “Pride is literally a form of blindness, which prevents even one who is otherwise wise from seeing his own shortcomings.” The accompanying rage can be devastating.

According to the medieval ethical work, Ways of the Righteous – Orchot Tzaddikkim (OT), an angry man “does not overlook things and does not forgive his insult; he is always vengeful and grudging.” As a leader, this individual lives in what today we would call a bubble, surrounded by like-minded sycophants, flatterers and flunkies. He shuts down questioning and meaningful information-flow because his advisors are “afraid to speak to him … lest he arouse his anger” (OT). He is like a teacher who intimidates his students. Just as such a teacher “cannot teach, for his students, fearing an angry response, will be afraid to ask him their questions” (OT), so an enraged leader is unable to lead.

An egomaniac is an extreme malcontent, never satisfied even with her own successes. Fixations repress reasoning. In this regard, we can understand why the anonymous author of Orchot Tzaddikkim said that, “anger is a disease of the soul” (OT). It leaves an out-of-control path of destruction in its wake, upending rational analyses and shattering relationships. Ironically, as the Talmud puts it, an angry person “reaps only his anger.” Desperately wanting to be loved, the angry leader makes himself an anathema, fighting constantly even with those who would be his allies and advocates.

According to Luzzatto, “The angry person would destroy the entire world if he had the power” (MY). On more than one occasion, history has made clear that when a leader is consumed by his own need to be right or obsessed with advancing his public persona above all else, the results can be devastating. If, as Luzzatto cautions, anger can cause anyone “to commit some rash deed that can never be undone” (MY), the consequences in the case of a leader are that much more perilous.

In the religious Weltanschauung of classical Jewish writings, the biggest problem with anger and arrogance is that they lead to idolatry. According to the Talmud, “He who loses his temper, even the Divine Presence is unimportant in his eyes.” Simply stated, an obsessive focus on one’s personal convictions supplants the centrality of God. Even in non-theocentric environments, like the workplace or the national government, an idée fixe predicated on the uncompromising idiosyncrasies of a particular leader distracts from the work at hand.

Of course we want our leaders in business, philanthropy, and government to be strong and resolute. But arrogance is not strength, and anger is not tenacity.

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Read my fomer blog The Leading Edge Previously published on JUF.org

Hal Lewis