Career Guide

The arrogance of growth

As America scaled greater and greater heights of economic prosperity through most of the 20th century, the rest of the world complained bitterly about American arrogance. The common perception about the US in Asia was that Americans do not try to understand others’ perspectives and want to rule the world with their own “my way or the highway” mentality. But one would have thought that Asians, so offended by these overbearing Yanks, would in turn retain their own humility when their growth jumped. However, I find the exact opposite to be true. In the last decade, I would venture to say, growth in Asian arrogance has outstripped growth in Asian economies. And with this overweening pride comes the risk of a fall.

Consider India, where the growth in recent years has outstripped the sluggish “Hindu rate of growth” experienced from the 1950s to the 1980s. Indian CEOs and executives have become increasingly overbearing. At a recent CEO conference in Mumbai conducted by one of the most prominent US business schools, I heard CEOs brag about how good Indian talent, education institutes and companies were, and how India’s “economic dominance” had arrived.

The excessive sense of self-worth has reached such heights that many have stopped listening and learning. While it is risky to stereotype, I must share my experience that my fellow Indians have stopped asking the sorts of questions that have always made us such good students; not only of technology but of the world. We have become overly-focused on what foreigners should learn from our successes. We are falling into a trap I call the Arrogance of Growth.

My recent interaction with a “C Level” executive at one of the largest Indian companies will illustrate this Arrogance of Growth. I spent 90 minutes in a meeting with this gentleman, to which he also invited two of his subordinates. Of the 90 minutes, he spent over an hour telling me how knowledgeable and influential he personally was and how he was redefining the conventional logic of our entire profession. He went on to tell me how there was hardly any other company that was better than his in its field. It was due to this that he finds attending conferences a big waste of time. “I only go to conferences when I am invited to speak, not otherwise,” he said proudly. Except for a couple of questions he asked to size me up, he took no advantage whatsoever of my visit to ask my opinion on anything, or to benchmark any best practices from around the world. While I came away learning a lot about his company (and about his own opinion of himself), I wondered what he learned after investing 90 minutes of his time with me. His final words just before the meeting ended summed it all up, “These days, non-resident Indians (NRIs) like yourself are returning to India by the plane loads because you all are finally realising that this is the place to be. However, you will not succeed here because while you’ve been away, we have surpassed your so called western best practices.”

In another recent trip, to Singapore this time, I also saw the Arrogance of Growth in full bloom. The head of HR and CEO of one of the divisions of a large government controlled organisation had invited me to give a talk about global best practices in creating a winning corporate culture. They had both read my new book and invited me to give a talk to the Group Leadership Team (GLT). As I was waiting to be called in for my presentation, the HR head and the division CEO came out and told me that there was a problem and that I would need to cut my talk to 15 minutes. It turned out that the group chairman was not interested in learning about winning culture best practices because he thought nothing was wrong with their current corporate culture. In fact, I learned later that the chairman wanted to cancel the entire session but at the request of the two people who had invited me, he had agreed to the 15 minutes. I don’t believe there was anything personal here. The chairman was just not interested in learning from other companies. He is reported to have said, “When people come to our company from all over the world to study our culture, why have you invited someone to tell us about other cultures?”

I see similar arrogance in China and other parts of Asia. The Japanese arrogance of the 80s is well known – as they became the economic powerhouse of the world, they thought they could do no wrong. So strong was the real estate boom in Japan that at one time, the Imperial Palace was worth more than all of California. Even though post-war Japan was indeed an economic miracle that must be studied and respected, did we and they learn any lessons of humility during and after the lost decade that followed? Coming back to India, I think the hubris is a bit more pronounced than elsewhere. As an Indian myself, I cannot understand this phenomenon. Firstly, we come from the land of Gandhi, and Gandhi’s biggest lesson to the world was that of leadership with humility. Having spent decades complaining about western arrogance, how is it that we have forgotten Gandhi’s lessons so quickly? Secondly, given India’s huge problems – rampant corruption, lack of sanitation and hygiene for over half the population, lack of clean drinking water and power supply, widespread illiteracy - to name just a few; what are we so proud and arrogant about anyway? Yes the country is making progress, but hardly at a level and speed that warrant any arrogance.

Leading with Humble Confidence

To achieve its potential, Asia must lead with humble confidence. While it must have great confidence in its ability to grow to higher levels of prosperity, the region must also remain modest and respectful enough of others to remember that it cannot grow in isolation, and that it can learn from the rest of the world.

At an individual level, senior executives can become pretentiously proud without even realising it. Growth arrogance is not limited to Asia – it can happen to anyone anywhere. Such arrogance prevents us from achieving our true potential because subordinates do not give their 100% to such a boss. In today’s complex business environment, there is no doubt about the fact that unless your team gives you their full energy and motivation, you as a leader will under achieve.

So how can you ensure you are not acting under the heady influence of the Arrogance of Growth? Try implementing three simple rules in your social interaction style:

1. Try to help as many people as you can even if they seem of no use to you. You never know when they might be of help. At the very least, you can only benefit from their best wishes and gratitude.

2. When you walk into a meeting, ask three questions before giving your opinion. Even if you are totally convinced about the topic at hand, asking three questions might give you some new information, and prevent you from digging yourself into a hole.

3. Seek more to learn, and less to preach. By all means share your expertise and vast knowledge, but also try and learn something from everyone you meet.

Rajeev Peshavaria is the CEO of ICLIF, a leadership think-tank. To discuss this article or to provide feedback, email