Which Is More Successful: Humility or Arrogance?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Around our shop, we talk a lot about humility. Not a lack of confidence, or determination, or ambition. Rather a realization that every self-aware person understands that learning is a lifelong journey; that listening is the best way to engage others; that loud self centered people are better off working for our competitors. This thinking certainly isn’t my own. At the very least, it’s part Jim Collins (Level Five Leadership in Good To Great) with a forkful of Zen thrown in. But it at least has been an ideal that I’ve had for years now, not just personally (maybe I’ll get over myself at some point) but also for EllisDon as a company of leaders, top, bottom, and on all sides.

Except for this: I met a company president recently who really impressed me, and ‘Humble’ isn’t exactly the first word I’d use to describe him. And I doubt he’d give a damn one way or the other. This person is on a mission to be the best, to create something far superior to anything else out there. He has a strong ego, and he has no interest in combining a bunch of different points of view to get to some unclear result, or in compromise of any kind. He sees no purpose in those discussions, and literally doesn’t have time for them. I spent a couple hours with him, and came away wanting to hang out much more with this non-humble person, even if we never work together. So what’s with that? Where did I go so wrong?

When I thought about it some more, I realized that I’m often impressed with ‘cocky’ people, even though I’m also often unimpressed with cocky people. So now there’s some work to do. Why do we like some seemingly arrogant people, and dislike others? Suddenly my whole carefully constructed Jim Collins based humility/confidence ethos is in flames. I’m not sure what the answer is, but if you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, and how you are going to do it, then maybe it’s an important question.

The answer I’ve struggled to (and I had to get to an answer, this was killing me) is Purpose. If someone is arrogant or uncompromising in the clear and honest pursuit of their Purpose, then that is not merely fine, it is noble. As long as that purpose is reasonably honourable and not simple selfishness. Any leader, any competitor, any parent – any anybody – has the duty to say ‘this is what I am going to do, it is the moral thing that is most important to me in my life, and I refuse to compromise my standards or my priorities to anyone, and if you don’t like it, tough.’ Maybe that’s arrogant, maybe insensitive, but it’s also admirable. People who have set a very lofty, nearly unreachable goal for themselves understand that compromise is a death trap, and losing focus is a disaster. As long as they are honest, and only pick on people their own size, isn’t that unrelenting determination a terrific thing?

In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m thinking that Purpose trumps everything – including even happiness, conventionally defined. Think of the great sacrifices people have made in their own lives in the pursuit of a purpose that they thought was very important for themselves, for others, for their country. You see it every day.

So go ahead, be arrogant, be relentless, be uncompromising. If your purpose is worthwhile and clear and you’re not just being an egotistically selfish jerk, you may accomplish something very great.

Yes or No? (Your thoughts will be embraced with humility.) Thanks for reading.