THE BLOG
10/14/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Your Boss -- Seriously Successful or Downright Deluded?

Strangely enough, the answer is probably both!

One night over dinner, I listened to a wise military leader share his experience with an eager, newly minted General, "Recently, have you started to notice that when you tell jokes, everyone erupts into laughter -- and that when you say something 'wise' everyone nods their heads in solemn agreement?" The new General replied, "Why, yes, I have." The older General laughed, "Let me help you. You aren't that funny and you aren't that smart! It's only that star on your shoulder. Don't ever let it go to your head."

We all want to hear what we want to hear. We want to believe those great things that the world is telling us about ourselves. Your boss is no different. It's our belief in ourselves that helps us become successful and it can also make it very hard for us to change. As the wise older General noted -- we aren't really that funny, and we aren't really that smart. We can all get better -- if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves. By understanding why changing behavior can be so difficult for our leaders, we can increase the likelihood of making the changes that we need to make in our quest to become even more successful.

Why We Resist Change We all delude ourselves about our achievements, our status and our contributions. We
  • Overestimate our contribution to a project;
  • Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and standing among our peers;
  • Exaggerate our project's impact on profitability by discounting real and hidden costs.

Many of our delusions come from our association with success, not failure. We get positive reinforcement from our successes and we think they are predictive of a great future.

The fact that successful people tend to be delusional isn't all bad. Our belief in our wonderfulness gives us confidence. Even though we are not as good as we think we are, this confidence actually helps us be better than we would become if we did not believe in ourselves. The most realistic people in the world are not delusional -- they are depressed!

Although our self-confident delusions can help us achieve, they can make it difficult for us to change. In fact, when others suggest that we need to change, we may respond with unadulterated bafflement.

It's an interesting three-part response. First we are convinced that the other party is confused. They are misinformed, and they just don't know what they are talking about. They must have us mixed up with someone who truly does need to change. Second, as it dawns upon us that the other party is not confused -- maybe their information about our perceived shortcomings is accurate -- we go into denial mode. This criticism may be correct, but it can't be that important -- or else we wouldn't be so successful. Finally, when all else fails, we may attack the other party. We discredit the messenger. "Why is a winner like me," we conclude, "listening to a loser like you?"

These are just a few of our initial responses to what we don't want to hear. Couple this with the very positive interpretation that successful people assign to (a) their past performance, (b) their ability to influence their success (as opposed to just being lucky), (c) their optimistic belief that their success will continue in the future and (d) their over-stated sense of control over their own destiny (as opposed to being controlled by external forces), and you have a volatile cocktail of resistance to change.

So, as you can see, while your boss's positive beliefs about herself helped her become successful. These same beliefs can make it tough for her to change. The same beliefs that helped her get to her current level of success, can inhibit her from making the changes needed to stay there -- or move forward. Don't fall into this trap!

As the wise older General noted, as you move up the ranks and get that star -- don't let it go to your head. Realize that every promotion can make it harder to change. Always balance the confidence that got you here -- where you are -- with the humility required to get you there -- where you have the potential to go.

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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Coaching for Leadership: The Success Delusion accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).