Absent pathology, we all wake up in the morning with the best of intentions to do good things. Sure, we all entertain and even act on the occasional devious thought – a prank on a colleague or spouse, a few choice words lobbed at the TV news – but for the most part, we are decent people.
And we are often, as well, correct in our own minds. We know what we would like done and how to go about doing it – with the resultant corollary: if you’re doing it differently, you must be wrong. I believe that self-righteousness is at the heart of our differences and keeps us from getting along better. The divide in “right/wrong” thinking keeps us from connecting with others at deeper levels, and it builds and reinforces the divide in our homes and workplaces, at the polls and between houses of worship alike.
There isn’t a leader or team immune to being self-righteous, and equally true, we are all prone to the binary thinking that divides us.
Let’s back up for a moment. Let’s look at self-righteousness from a fundamental definition:
having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior.
“self-righteous indignation and complacency”
synonyms: sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, smug, priggish, complacent, too good to be true, pious, pietistic, moralizing, unctuous, superior, mealy-mouthed, hypocritical;
I find it interesting that there’s an inherently negative connotation with the term and definition. I wonder if this is because, in comparison to righteousness, self-righteousness seems more subjective and thus more likely to be disagreed with or judged negatively. It could also be simply a function of the “unfounded certainty” element of the definition – those who believe they’re right with no grounded evidence to support that belief. That belief leaves little room for other points of view.
I suggest that to be an effective leader, we need to be aware of the distinction between self-righteous and confident; we must hold a sense of self-worth that is high-bar, and know we are worthy without it being problematic. I want to challenge leaders who stray toward self-righteousness to recognize, instead, when they have true confidence behind knowing how to reach strategic goals and create relationships. That confidence will allow them to also invite and consider other viewpoints and belief systems – it will allow them to bring out the best in others, which of course is the goal of a true leader.
That confidence, I believe, also has two other major benefits. First, it allows for compassion – compassion that can reduce the binary thinking tendencies that tend to divide us on multiple levels. When we are confident in our knowledge – or confident that we need more knowledge – we are able to be more compassionate toward others in their circumstances and the viewpoints that arise in part from those circumstances.
Second, and flowing freely from the aforementioned compassion, that confidence makes it easier to rein in our inherent tendencies to judge – yet another tendency that contributes to division. While judgment is often necessary at some point for decision making, it can also serve to put a stop to our processing. Judgment is an ending, and it is often relied on too – effectively ending processes prematurely when there is still more discovery and experimentation available to us.
As leaders, we can be too quick to denigrate other points of view. Johnathan Hait makes this point in his book, “The Righteous Mind,” when he discusses moral foundation theory and its application in politics and suggests Americans and other Western leaders tend to quickly close themselves off to other points of view. This is the essential point of awareness where we turn righteousness and confidence (knowing we have valid and correct perspectives) into the negative form of self-righteousness (smug, pious, and holier-than-thou). Awareness of that point – and the knowledge and confidence that come from that awareness – enable us as leaders to allow for others to contribute and achieve on their own paths to being leaders.
Remaining open in the face of new ideas, other points of view, and even adversity while holding onto what we know is right is the oft-taught and ever-difficult key to being an effective leader. But as long as we continue to wake up each morning with the intention to do good things, we can continue to practice that key and lead others to a mindset of confident, compassionate, and judgment-free leadership.
Originally appeared in Central New York Business Journal September 16, 2019