Why Bad Leaders Think They’re Good (Sometimes) and How to Avoid this Blindspot

woman singing on stage with microphone

It was a cringe-worthy moment. I sat patiently and listened through the whole song with a fake smile. Inside I was squirming with embarrassment for the young lady who was singing in a talent competition. Off-pitch. Warbly. Awkward stage presence. The vocal solo was a total disaster. When she was done, she beamed with pride. She thought she had done well. The truth was that she had no talent at all.

How could she not know? How could this bright young lady not know that she could not sing? (Why did her parents, who were both talented musicians, never have the courage to be honest with her!?)

She had fallen to the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” Wikipedia’s definition explains it well: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability have illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” Put simply, some people who aren’t good at a skill think they are a lot better than they really are. The issue stems from a lack of self-awareness that prevents the person from being able to accurately evaluate their own skill.

Is it possible to fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect as a leader? Absolutely! It is entirely possible that you (or I) may think you are better in some aspect of leading than you really are. As I ponder that idea, I get a twinge in my stomach just like I had listening to that vocal solo many years ago.

How can we avoid this blindspot?

I enjoy photography. I’m not great at it. It’s just fun. I’m not exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect—at least not in my photography skills. I follow a couple photography blogs and recently PetaPixel posted an interesting article called Why Bad Photographers Think They’re Good. The author, Michael Zhang, discusses the Dunning-Kruger effect in the field of photography. (This is what gave me the idea for this article.)

Zhang pointed his readers to a YouTube video by Jamie Windsor that explains how to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. His audience is photographers, but the advice applies just as well to leaders.

Avoiding the Dunning-Kruger effect:

  1. Beware of feeling comfortable. If you feel like you’re in a groove and you’re thinking “I’ve got this!” you should consider the possibility that you don’t.
  2. Learn to let go of old work. Don’t rest on yesterday’s successes. Move forward to new and greater challenges.
  3. Ask for feedback from good photographers [i.e. good leaders]. Getting constructive criticism can sting, but it is necessary for your growth as a leader.
  4. Always keep learning. There is always more to learn. There are always ways to improve.
  5. Understand that feeling bad about your old work is a sign that you’re moving forward. This is a sign of developing self-awareness which is essential for growth as a leader.

The bottom line in avoiding the Dunning-Kruger effect as a leader is to stay humble and work to develop self-awareness.

One simple action-step is to take this list and ask a trusted fellow leader to help you evaluate your leadership on these five points. If this person says, “Really, I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” end the conversation and find someone who will be honest with you.

We all have need for growth in leadership.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. He is also an experienced competency-based higher education professional. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Markus Spiske. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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