Every year I challenge students in my Stanford University Ethics on the Edge class to find new examples of drivers of ethics transgressions. Every year they do. A few years ago it was anonymous social media. The latest: the sharing economy. Is Uber spreading unethical employee practices and unsafe passenger experiences by categorizing drivers as independent contractors and defending sub-par safety checks? Or is Uber really “just a platform” and therefore justified in dumping responsibility for ethics on the technology, the users, the drivers, and society?


Neither my brilliant students, nor the business, governmental, and non-profit leaders I speak with, ever suggest Uber’s biggest problem: believing that growth and profits will trump ethics. (Examples like Uber often entangle the law as well, but the relationship between the law and ethics is for another article.)


Before I unpack arrogance and why it is such a serious risk to organizations and leaders, I should say that I believe that 99% of the individuals and organizations caught in ethics scandals are highly competent, hard-working, and well-intentioned. This includes most of the board members and employees of banks in 2008, most social media company employees, and most everyone involved with Uber. In fact, much of my consulting work is figuring out how highly ethical leaders and organizations can weather the odd and inevitable ethics storm without losing credit for their efforts.




Believing that one’s greatness – whether profits or some other measure of personal or organizational value – trumps ethics is plain vanilla arrogance.


Arrogance is one of the most dangerous drivers of unethical behavior. It is almost always present in one form or another when scandal erupts. Think of Sepp Blatter continuing to draw his president’s salary during an eight-year ban from soccer (and declaring himself the “godfather” of women’s soccer). Think of investment banks justifying conflicts of interest as a business model. Think of allegedly fraudulent anti-human-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam’s high-fashion ego duping even the meticulous and compassionate Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof and other high-profile leaders. (I cite Nicholas Kristof precisely because he is not arrogant as far as I can tell and because his wisdom on how easy it is to fall prey to arrogance deployed for charity taught us all a good lesson.)


Arrogance never has a positive flip side. (I distinguish arrogance, rooted in a sense of superiority, from productive and gracious self-confidence or power, which Amy Cuddy and those she cites in Presence explore). Most other ethics risks can be deployed for positive or negative ends, for example social media used to spread best practices during a pandemic.


The reason arrogance occupies a top slot in ethics risk rankings is that it generates, and exacerbates, almost all of the other drivers of unethical behavior. Its patina of competence, decisiveness, and even renown may attract followers. But the real forces at play are bravado, pressure, and a mesmerizing or threatening image.


Similarly, arrogance can undergird organizational behavioral issues leading to ethics failure such as complacency or arbitrary enforcement of principles. It can infiltrate structures embedding unethical behavior: silos (engineering flaws never communicated to senior management); excessively rigid hierarchy (the US military’s response to sexual assault); and incentives (when was the last time you saw a CEO’s compensation package tied to ethics?).


Arrogance demands perfection from others, on the assumption that the arrogant leader is already closer to perfection than his/her followers and that others had better step up their performance. But perfection is neither a laudable goal nor possible. Standards of perfection can lead to stress, fear, cutting safety corners, secrecy, arbitrarily applied zero-tolerance policies, and cheating (Volkswagen’s growth goals and emissions software manipulation). These offshoots of arrogance are not about substantive excellence or the healthy stress in striving to do one’s best. Rather, they reflect panic: the quicksand of mounting unreasonable expectations and an increasing gap between one’s opinion of oneself and reality – an image to maintain.


Arrogance bores through geographic, organizational, and societal barriers. It links sectors. Lance Armstrong’s doping tainted his LiveStrong Foundation (and its volunteers, beneficiaries, and donors) right alongside his sponsors (like the US Postal Service), international regulators, and the sport of cycling. Was the glory of victory and the adulation it brought worth the damage?


Arrogance also shuts down valuable input about ethics risk. It creates an echo chamber. Why listen to anyone else when the arrogant leader is convinced that s/he knows more than everyone else? Arrogant leaders and organizations leap to conclusions and dismiss risk too quickly. After all, they are untouchable.


At the extreme, arrogance crosses over into bullying or threats – the kind that leads others to falsify sales transactions or money laundering.


And finally, arrogant leaders and organizations are more likely to protect their reputation than to solve underlying ethics challenges, because image is so important to them. They duck responsibility and distribute blame and shame, leaving ethics challenges dangling—that is, primed to spread. (Dismissing a CEO after a scandal is never enough, but beheading an organization can be critical if the head is arrogant.) A corollary: all too often arrogant leaders run straight for public relations advice, confusing PR with ethics.


Sourcing Arrogance


Arrogance is not reserved for the C-Suite. Just as everyone’s input into ethics oversight matters, anyone at any level of an organization can display and spread harmful arrogance. And some young graduates choosing among six-figure salaries display an appallingly skewed sense of entitlement. (Here again, in my experience most do not.) But most dangerously, arrogance is insidious. Arrogance is never the answer I get when I ask most world leaders, university students, or international businesspeople to guess their biggest personal and organizational threat. It doesn’t even come into the conversation, except possibly as an off-hand remark.


Some may think that arrogance emerges from cognitive biases. One example is believing that those “like us” (e.g., alumnae of the same university) are more likely to be ethical. Another is believing that our contribution to a particular project or organization is greater than those of our colleagues or family members. (I rely on trailblazers like Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel for my own understanding of bias. Their game-changing research is outside my own expertise.) But cognitive biases are often stealth operations. They do indeed lead to ethics failings and perhaps even to a display of arrogance. But the kind of ethically risky attitude and behavior I am calling out – the kind that topples investment banks and entire sports – is deliberate and known. It is a vicious cycle that begets a belief that arrogance is justified. In these examples, ethics is an inconvenience—as is law.


And individual arrogance breeds an organizational culture of arrogance.


Strategic Ethics Oversight


Strategic ethics oversight includes ferreting out where arrogance of all kinds might lurk and deploying corrective tactics to outsmart it. These are concrete actions, not general admonitions not to be arrogant (although on occasion that can be useful too).


There is a wide array of options. Some are meeting practices, recruiting procedures, and reporting structures that explode echo chambers – that actually require multiple voices. Others are checks and balances on standards of perfection, for example unpacking what is required to achieve performance targets and whether zero-tolerance is the right policy or a buzzword. Others relate to decision processes. But most important, taking responsibility for the ethical consequences of decisions is the best weapon: not dumping responsibility on a “platform” or on others’ behavior, or photo shopping an image with PR.

© Copyright 2017 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.