Overconfidence, Specialized knowledge & Illusion of Control: Triple Leadership Derailers

Author: Justine Chinoperekweyi
It is a aphorism that leaders with the right competencies have the capacity to drive an organization along the path of enduring good. On the contrary, leaders deprived of essential competencies tend to become reactive thereby ‘mis-leading’ their organizations. The dominant dilemma in organizations today is that most leaders sit and rest on their laurels whilst on a high rise three-legged stool of overconfidence, specialized knowledge, and illusion of control. It is highly risky to be behind the corporate driving wheel whilst sitting on a high rise three-legged stool. What attracts most corporate leaders to assume the sit comfortably on a three legged stool? Of course the labels attached to these three; confidence, knowledge, and control are attractive leadership competencies. However, too much of anything becomes dangerous. It is accurate to say, ‘the cream rises, until it sours’. These success delusions are a trap to most leaders and make it hard for leaders to embrace and lead change. Overconfidence, specialized knowledge, and illusion of control are unreliable legs on a leadership stool; unless cut short, reframed, or reinforced to maintain balance. In view of epochal change in the business environment, it seems ideal to abandon the three legged stool, towards the swivel chair that gives greater flexibility.
To lead whilst sitting on a high rise three legged stool of overconfidence, specialized knowledge, and illusion of control is an inaccurate and dangerous mission as the chances of toppling over are high. Sitting on a three legged stool for a long time is painful, draining, tiring, and leads to split personality phenomenon and impression management. I will use the analogy of wearing a trouser without a belt, wearing an over-sized coat, and putting oversize shoes to illustrate the effects of specialized knowledge, overconfidence, and illusion of control respectively.
Specialized knowledge
A reliance on education and training programs that celebrate the mere cultivation of capacity and efficiency has led most leaders to consider this leg of the stool as reliable. Without recognizing that whatever is accumulated withers, this has led many leaders to accumulate specialized knowledge, roles, and education. Most leaders have acquired in-depth knowledge in a certain field thereby developing certain skills and competencies specific to that field. The overconfidence dilemma is seemingly reinforced by this view as the leaders develop expertise in the methods, models, and analytical frameworks related specifically to that field. In an ever-changing environment characterized by new roles and responsibilities, specialized knowledge is more often than not, challenged. In connection to the overconfidence leg, leaders tend to develop increasing ‘rigidities’ even in the face of change as they tend to rely on practices and assumptions typical to their discipline. In relying with the specialized knowledge, change is narrowly interpreted in line with the leader’s functional specialization. Specialized knowledge is like wearing a trouser without a belt, simply because it was fitting properly the last time. If you don’t pay attention, think creatively and fit your trouser properly, specialized knowledge might “fail to hold those bad boys up and prevent some sort of weird, unintentional flashing incident on the subway platform. The right belt keeps your pants at your waist and will look more natural with your suit that has belt loops” – Scott Wicken on Combatant Gentlemen.
Upon assuming a leadership position, most individuals tend to adjust their confidence levels in order to validate their suitability to that position. Of course, you can’t lead without exuding confidence. It is the misguided focus and practice of confidence that derails organizational effectiveness. In validating their suitability for leadership position, most corporate leaders tend to become overconfident with the current skills, experience, and past performance so much such that environmental dictates and folk knowledge are relegated to informal discussions. Overconfidence is the tendency to overestimate one’s own abilities and outcomes, either by the leader or those around him or her. Why should leaders keep an eye on their confidence levels? The overconfidence leg is characterized by biased perceptions and total disregard of divergent opinions, even in the midst of a crisis. This mainly emanates from psychological effects of high recent firm performance, strong publicity, lack of self-awareness, and high relative compensation. Overconfidence is like putting an over-sized coat without styling it up – it then obscures everything inside, its heavy, and it’s scary. It’s seemingly attractive because it makes the leader humongous, yet power is not everything in leadership. As a leader, master the volume of your confidence level.
Illusion of Control
Sitting on a high rise two-legged stool is extremely dangerous; and unfortunately most of those in positions of authority have a myopic view of leadership as merely a position. The third leg, illusion of control, gives most leaders a sense of comfort and power, hence the emergence ivory tower planning. As it is a high rise position, it gives a false sense of oversight, insight, hindsight and foresight. The illusion of control is a natural outcome of specialized knowledge and overconfidence. Illusion of control is an overestimation of the ability to enhance success with the current skills and knowledge. Looking at it from a leadership alliance perspective, it involves shared positive illusions regarding the current and future performance estimates. Positive illusions facilitate the leader’s disregard of the factors beyond their control that might lead to failure and also a total disregard of folk knowledge. The shared positive illusions also heighten the overconfidence and illusion of control legs leading to a surprise toppling over. Illusion of control is like fitting into oversized shoes – through stuffing the soles with thin rags or paper, or slipping on multiple pairs of thick socks. This alters your natural stride leading to serious problems. According to an article by BootMoodFoot, the other effects of wearing oversized shoes include blisters, bunions and hammertoes, metatarsalgia (pain in the ball of the foot), increased chance of falling, and body pain. As a leader, minimize conflict and tension by wearing proper fitting leadership shoes – always measure your foot size.
What can be done to attend to these noble yet dangerous leadership competencies?

Leaders need to be role models. As such leaders need to properly fit in their trousers (gain knowledge), master the volume of their confidence level, and minimize conflict and tension. This is normally done through inquiry and engagement and enhanced Self-knowledge. There is need to alter the perspectives of leaders through cutting short the three legs, reframing, or reinforcing the legs. This calls for a ‘soft-as-wool leadership’ model. This leadership model recognizes the wrenching and epochal change in the operating environment thereby valuing human capabilities such as artistry, nerve, daring-to do, and elan. A ‘soft-as-wool leader’ sits on an adjustable swivel chair of leadership and utilizes it to see beyond the horizon through circular visioning. This leader dresses up creatively and thinks critically in response to changes and situations. To sustain that leadership capability:
• Organizations should continuously raise awareness that the leadership success delusion is a trap in a changing environment;
• Always raise the accountability standard and nurturing the spirit of inquiry and continuous improvement;
• Encourage corporate leaders to challenge their own and other’s assumption and encourage divergent viewpoints;
• Institute methodologies to enhance career foresight among corporate members; and
• Promote approaches to escape from the Run-The-Business service investment towards Grow-The-Business and Transform-The-Business methodologies.

Engage with Dr. Chinoperekweyi at justine@centreold.com

1 Comment

  1. Bontle Marumoloa on June 29, 2021 at 3:57 am

    Hello Dr!
    This is an insightful article. I apppreciate that the leader here is trying to reframe the mindset of the team she is leading to shift from the leader knows it all approach to collective decision making. However, we still come across the team members that will not make an effort to participate in complementing the leader to shift from the traditional approaches. For example, what would be your advise to a team that is very rigid. For example, working with a team from the disciplined forces where they are used to taking orders. How do we reframe their mindset?

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