Friday, June 9, 2006

Arrogance as a Virtue

Some people are like Slinkies... not really good for anything, but you still can't help but smile when you see one tumble down the stairs. ~Author Unknown

Arrogance is a funny trait. Most of the time, it's irritating to be on the receiving end of the withering wave of frustrating condescension that an arrogant person can hurl at us. Worse, the most arrogant people also tend to be the most childish and difficult to work with. On the other hand, it's a positive blessing to have an arrogant person in the right place at the right time.

Consider General George Patton. In military history, there have been few more overbearing and absolutely arrogant figures than Patton. Yet this was a man who knew himself. In a scene from the movie Patton, after one Patton tirade, his aide says, “You know, sometimes, sir, they can't tell whether your acting or not.” Patton, brilliantly played by George C. Scott replies, “It's not important that they know. It's only important that I know.” As Patton, ultimately found out, arrogance is acceptable until you make mistakes, and those in power deem you to be dispensible.

Arrogance is not a necessary part of being, say, a successful general. Omar Bradley, a compatriot of Patton's, was known as the GI general, a sort of “with the guys” kind of leader. Despite this, though, when I've heard Bradley speak, he comes across with some of that leader's arrogance. It's an element of belief in self that is necessary to almost any successful leader. Whatever you may have heard, “aw, shucks” kinds of people do not, generally (no pun intended) speaking, make the best leaders. They may be folksy in public, cultivating a persona that sells well with the public, but, in the trenches, they've got an attitude that clearly states they're in charge. If they don't have that, then someone else is calling the shots.

Well, that's all well and good if you're running the First Cav or the United States. How about the arrogance we have to deal with in some individuals? Is that doing us any good? That depends.

Just as with Omar Bradley, effective corporate leaders have to have a degree of arrogance. There's a point at which someone has to make the calls, exert the discipline, overcome the inertia. This isn't just something that happens in the boardroom. The best project managers I've seen have a touch of “I'm in charge”. If you've ever managed a big project, you know that there's always a moment when the project leader has to go up against the recalcitrance of managers who, for whatever reason, are not wedded to the idea that the project must succeed. You can go up the ladder, but you can't do that too many times. To be effective, you have to project that attitude of certainty and control that says, “By god, we're going to succeed with or without you. When we succeed without you, you're going to be branded as a loser.”

Now, I'll have to admit to a certain amount of arrogance myself. It comes with the territory if you're going to be a system administrator. When things are going wrong, you've got to be able to take action in the face of all sorts of people screaming that their exceedingly important work isn't getting done. Some of them will decide they need to contact you every two minutes to get a status report, which, of course, will keep you from getting anything done. That's when the arrogance comes into play.

Once you solve the problems, the arrogance is forgotten, perhaps even admired. But, you can't make it a habit, or else it won't be effective when you need it. Also, continual overbearing arrogance gets old. The next time a problem occurs, people are liable to decide that your arrogance is one of the causes of problems.

In some circumstances, they'd be right. Arrogance can be a sign of the corrupting influence of power. We've seen it altogether too often in recent years, with the likes of Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, and HealthSouth. Before the fall, we see the arrogance of the people on top, ignoring subordinates' warnings, granting themselves egregious percs, and robbing stockholders and employees blind. What then follows is these same towers of arrogance pretending they had no idea what was going on. It's the inverse of the Nuremberg defense. Instead of “I was just following orders,” they say, “I was just giving orders, but I had no idea how they were carried out.”


Ultimately, though, what fries most of us is the arrogant sort who has no business being arrogant. We accept some high-handedness by those who have demonstrated expertise or carried off difficult tasks. But when you get that attitude from the guy in the office mostly likely to be elected village idiot, it's galling. These are the people who never learn from their mistakes. Well, that's not strictly true. They make the same mistakes, but they often learn to cover them up with newer excuses.

Thankfully, most users are willing to accept responsibility for their actions and want to learn what to do to avoid having the problem happen again. This is fortunate because it cuts down on the number of bodies a sysadmin has to hide.

But, the most amazingly arrogant person I ever met once reached a level I thought wasn't possible. She was running through a litany of people she didn't get along with, even to the point of admitting that she recognized that I didn't much care for her style. Actually, what I didn't care for was that she consistently screwed up, then blamed it on anybody but herself. However, I let that pass, because I wanted her to go away. Then she hit me with an admission that I never expected.

She said that she recognized that she could be very irritating. Actually she used a common anatomical vulgarity, but I try to keep this blog relatively free of that sort of thing. Anyway, since she was being so frank, I simply said, “Why, yes, I'd say that's right.” She then went on to explain that she felt that was a positive character trait.

As anyone will tell, I am seldom left speechless, but this was one of those rare occasions. She actually used some of the logic I've presented above, omitting to mention the importance of successfully completing assigned tasks and reacting well to crises. I would like to say that I answered with some clever Oscar Wilde sort of quip, but I didn't. I just sat their slack-jawed until she left.

I was afraid she was going to start drawing comparisons to me.

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