7 Symptoms of the Overconfident (and what to do about it)

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
— Proverbs 26:12

Confidence is essential to leadership. Overconfidence can be suicidal. One of the great challenges leaders face is maintaining objectivity and humility on the heels of achievement, success, position, or praise.

In this post I identify seven symptoms of overconfidence, explore the underlying cause, and share five ways leaders can overcome this problem before it overcomes them.

Overconfidence and a Presidency Lost

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won a presidential race in which he was not even the favorite candidate of his own party. William Seward was the front-runner. Seward possessed political clout, “oceans of money,” and a shrewd and savvy adviser by the name of Thurlow Weed. Weed was brilliant, well connected, a seasoned veteran and confident — too confident. Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin writes,

As the [Republican] convention approached, overconfidence reigned in the Seward camp and poor judgment set in.
— Doris Kearns Goodwin

Despite his political acumen and relational bandwidth, Weed’s overconfidence may have cost Seward the presidency. He ignored a key critic, failed to secure an alliance with a political big dog, and dismissed warning signs that he might be in trouble. In the words of Proverbs, he became “wise in his own eyes.” The result? Seward lost his party’s nomination and Weed lost the prize that he spent his lifetime trying to win.

7 Symptoms of the Overconfident

If overconfidence were a disease it would be on the CDC watch list. And like those who have fallen prey to a life-threatening virus, overconfident leaders exhibit certain symptoms:

1. They talk more than they listen.

2. They criticize more than they celebrate.

3. They pontificate more than they inquire.

4. They surround themselves with “yes men.”

5. They fail to respect their rivals.

6. They don’t take warning signs seriously.

7. They stop seeking help from others.

It can be easy to think of overconfidence as a problem “they have.” But stop for a moment and re-read the list. Are there symptoms of overconfidence present in your life and leadership?
Getting to the root

How does overconfidence overtake such a powerhouse leader like Weed? For that matter, how does any leader fall prey to the damaging effects of a swollen head?

Business expert Jim Collins says the problem is hubris, “excessive pride that brings down a hero.” In How The Mighty Fall, Collins notes that hubris born of success leads to overreaching which leads to the denial of risk and peril. Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges drill down even deeper. The authors of Lead Like Jesus take us back to our EGO. When it comes to EGO, their question is one every leader needs to ask himself or herself:

Do you seek to Edge God Out or to Exalt God Only in the way you exert influence on those around you?

Whether we call it “hubris,” “EGO,” or like the writer of Proverbs, “becoming wise in our own eyes,” the root problem is a self-centered leader who begins to ignore God and others.
How Leaders Overcome Overconfidence

While overconfidence can be crippling, it doesn’t have to be. This “disease” can be arrested and reversed if leaders are willing to step down from their high horse and wise up. Here are five ways leaders overcome overconfidence.

1. They eliminate threshold thinking

Once a leader reaches a new wrung on the ladder of success, he/she can develop a subtle or not so subtle condescension towards those “below.” Simply put, we don’t want to hear what someone says until he/she has crossed the threshold we ourselves have passed. For example:

  • Age: “What does he know, he’s too old.” “What does she know, she’s too young.”
  • Education: “Why should I listen to him, he doesn’t have the ________ (insert credentials) I have.”
  • Race/Ethnicity: “A ___________ man (substitute race/ethnicity) can’t speak to this issue.”
  • Physical fitness: “Why should I listen to him, he’s not as fit as me.”
  • Experience: “That person is a JUNIOR executive. What does she have to offer?”
  • Achievement: “Bob’s sale’s record pales in comparison to mine. Why have they asked him to address the group?”
  • Tribe: “Jim is in R&D, what does he know? We’re the ones that actually have to sell this stuff.”

People don’t need to pass through a threshold to be heard. The fact is we can learn from anyone: younger, older, richer, poorer, black, white, male, female, Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

Servant leaders know that “God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, not only is everyone created in God’s image, but God also graciously gives everyone a brain and the ability to use it. Leaders who believe this see everyone they meet as a potential conduit of wisdom, insight, and ideas. No matter their station in life, people deserve my attention and respect.

 2. They appreciate different personalities

It is no secret that opposites attract, but they also attack! Dominant personalities easily offend and distance the highly relational. The sanguine crowd can be put off by the apparent stodginess of the bean-counter type.

It can be easier to write people off when they differ from us. That’s not wise. Those different from us often have “fresh eyes.” Stephen Covey said,

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.
— (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)

It is often people with personalities completely different than ours who help us see problems or opportunities in ways we cannot.

3. They become listening magnets

People still have two ears and one mouth. Perhaps we should be listening twice as much as we speak. “Listen” is a word that appears again and again in Proverbs, a part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible:

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
— Proverbs 12:15
A scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
— Proverbs 13:1
He who listens to rebuke gains intelligence.
— Proverbs 15:22
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.
— Proverbs 19:20

Listening is hard work. The Chinese character for listening is made up of symbols that speak of ears, eyes, undivided attention, and heart. In other words, it takes a fully-engaged person to be a good listener. But listeners who are fully engaged also reap the benefits of insight, ideas, warnings, and encouragement.

4. They look for the critic’s “kernel of truth”

Dawson Trotman was the founder of the Navigators, an international organization that helps people grow in their relationship with God. The leader of any organization is subject to criticism and Trotman was not immune to the critic’s barbs. Trotman, however, had a unique practice for handling the arrows of criticism that came flying his way. He would take the note of criticism and lay it before God. Then he would pray, “God, show me the kernel of truth in this criticism.”

Adopting the “kernel of truth” approach made Trotman wiser. It also kept him from becoming bitter. Knowing that God was using even the most frustrating moments put his heart at rest and enabled him to appreciate his critics.

5. They humble themselves before God

People who confuse humility with weakness need to look at Jesus. He was God in human form, but he gave up the glory of heaven to humble himself on a cross. Why? He sacrificed himself to endure the wrath of God and pay the penalty for our  sins. He died (and rose again) that we might live.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:5-11 ESV

It is interesting that the Bible uses Jesus as the model of servant leadership and his humble sacrifice as the picture of true love. Over and over again God highlights and honors humility (confidence in God) instead of overconfidence (trust in self).

God’s promise for the humble servant leader is always the same: He gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6) and in His time he will lift them up (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).

Leadership overconfidence . . . it’s like walking off the cliff. But you don’t have to go there — God has a better path for servant leaders who walk boldly as they humbly trust in Him.

What do you need to do to overcome overconfidence today?


  • "As the Republican convention approached . . ." from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. Pages 215.
  • "Seward lost his party's nomination . . ." from Goodwin, Team of Rivals. Pages 212ff. See also “Thurlow Weed (1797-1882)” from www.mrlincolnandnewyork.org. Accessed June 28, 2013.
  • "In How The Mighty Fall, Collins notes . . ." from Jim Collins, How The Mighty Fall. New York: HarperCollins. 2009. Page 29.
  • "Hubris born of success leads to . . ." from Collins, How The Mighty Fall. Page 83.
  • Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, Lead Like Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2005. Page 42.

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