The Arrogance Fallacy

Words matter. Which is why I mentally cringe when some VCs say they want their founders to be arrogant. Let’s look at two definitions of arrogant:

Merriam-Webster: exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner; showing an offensive attitude of superiority.

Dictionary.com: making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.

Exaggerating. Overbearing. Offensive. Self-important. Entitled. Some VCs probably saw a few of these founders generate huge returns and concluded that’s the CEO blueprint for success. 

Except it’s not.

Arrogance can look like strength and confidence but it’s typically the opposite: a psychological defense mechanism that projects a facade of superiority to hide some serious insecurities. Loud, arrogant people are often the most insecure and fearful people in the room. They are terrified others will think they’re dumb and incompetent. So they overcompensate. The more fame and fortune they attract, the more fearful they become, the more superior and entitled they act. Often with disastrous results. 

We’ve all seen it: one well-funded, arrogant CEO after another, doing offensive and illegal things, falling from grace and sometimes taking their companies with them. 

As a group, VCs themselves aren’t exactly poster children for humility. Worse, arrogance has no doubt played a role in the disgusting culture of sexism and harassment in Silicon Valley. The initial denials and subsequent pseudo-apologies of some offenders were almost too arrogant to believe. 

Arrogance is also related to the shameful lack of diversity among founders that get funded. VCs need to look beyond the arrogant white dudes to fund more women and people of color who don’t fit their preconceived founder image. This is starting to change but there’s much work to be done, by all of us.

Some of the smartest, most confident and successful people I know are actually humble. But don’t confuse humble with meek. They’re outspoken at the right times, stubborn even. But they’re not the loudest – they listen more than talk. They realize there’s a ton they don’t know and they’re honest about it. They operate from a place of relentless learning. They’re smart enough to know it’s not about proving they’re the smartest in the room. 

We shouldn’t be encouraging arrogance in anyone, especially our future business leaders. Let’s be vocal about supporting entrepreneurs who are coachable. Honest. Audacious. Respectful. Persistent. Emotionally intelligent. 

Because those are the qualities of great leaders and human beings. And because words matter. 

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