‘Nottingham is a beautiful city. The Trent is lovely too. I know, I’ve walked on it for 18 years’ Brian Clough, 1993
Self-belief is a critical trait in all business leaders. However, you need the wherewithal to distinguish between confidence, which is excellent, and arrogance, which is truly appalling.
When you are enjoying a lot of success and the flattering remarks come raining in, it’s easy to believe your own PR. People keep telling you what a great company you’ve built and how pleased you must be. And there’s only so many times you can say, ‘Aw, shucks!’
It has happened to military leaders many times, such as Napoleon and Hitler, who, after giddy success – the net result of meticulous planning and shock tactics – believed that anything at all was possible, with or without all the planning. And they stopped listening to people; they thought they didn’t need to bother – they just knew they were right. Arguably, Maggie Thatcher suffered from the same disease in the political realm at the end of her reign. Everyone knows the result in those instances.
It happened to me, too. I was in a battle with two major suppliers in the UK over whether we had honoured a deal and I said something rather arrogant and dismissive to the press. I was so over-extended on our international expansion that I hadn’t done my homework to see if our systems were in good shape. They weren’t; my comments were not only inaccurate, they left the other side fuming and even more determined to nail us. And they did just that at a cost of £2 million to the company – and a lot of bad publicity.
Family – the great leveller
It’s fair to say that my occasional slips through conceit and arrogance would have been far greater without my wife and kids. They have been good at bringing me down to earth – sometimes with a bang. (And if your wife and kids, partner or other loved ones don’t tell it like it is, then you have a much bigger problem than hubris.)
If I say something sounding a bit imperious, I hear a quick ‘You’re not at the office now!’ which usually does the trick. I’m also a guy who is extremely uncool; more absent-minded professor than James Bond. You know the sort of thing; jumping out of a taxi and grabbing your briefcase but because you’d forgotten to close it properly first, the papers spill everywhere – over the floor and onto the pavement and with my luck, it’s usually raining too!
There are other ways of keeping grounded
Do another job where you are not the boss – and nor do you deserve to be: it could be serving on a committee at the PTA or helping out at a charity. I’m hopeless at practical things like DIY or IT, really hopeless, so I’m quite happy to be the equivalent of the plumber’s mate in situations like that and it’s clear to absolutely everyone around me how useless I am.
Go to places where no one knows who the hell you are – or even cares. And you must cut your right leg off if you ever say, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’
Use public transport – I remember hearing a very successful businessman say, when those around him were complaining abut a hold-up on the Underground that day: ‘I’m happy to say that I haven’t used public transport for 12 years.’ He should have been embarrassed, not pleased. Funnily enough, this same guy was fired some years later and someone in his office said that he went to pieces when he lost his props of a company car and chauffeur.
Meet people at their offices – not yours. It all adds up to a sense of self-importance (and a false sense of security) if you insist that people always come to you.
Obviously, we need a sense of balance here – humble souls are unlikely to make successful, world-conquering business people.
Self-assurance and self-belief are ideal attributes. Superciliousness and haughtiness aren’t.
In the real world
A year or two ago my wife and I had taken a long weekend away in Cheltenham and we were relaxing in the hotel lounge one evening.
I was immersed in a book when a lovely old grandfather clock started striking 10pm – very slowly. It had got to seven strokes and I was still absorbed in my book, but now irritated. Without thinking, I shouted, ‘For God’s sake, get on with it!’
It was difficult at that point to argue with my wife that being the undisputed boss for so many years had affected my sense of reality.