Halfway through our stint as year three councillors at Chinese High we had a peer-feedback session, and someone proposed the “Pandora’s Box” activity to strengthen our team. We sat in a circle, and in the centre there was a chair. In turns we sat on that chair, and listened to criticisms from our peers, on what or how the individual could improve his character or work performance. What were his weaknesses, in other words. Even though we were probably too young to understand dispositions and ambitions, the session was still fairly solemn. And because all of us took the exercise so seriously the insights were valuable.
I dreaded my turn in the chair. Dreaded. Giving comments (as I’ve always done) was easy, but listening was hard. Listening about my arrogance was even harder. And over the years through similar activities in the army and non-profits my arrogance was mentioned too.
Was I ever concerned? I don’t know. During interviews in school my response to the predictable “what is your greatest strength and weakness” question was: “I am extremely confidence and determined, but in excess over-confidence leads to arrogance”. An answer worthy of an A+. Therefore besides this acceptance maybe I was just misunderstood? Friends spoke of my aloofness and reluctance to engage in conversations, yet I’ve always been awkward in large groups and with breaking the ice. At the end of my internship while the boss was complimentary about my work performance over the three months, he noted my lack of “presence” – not interacting with the other colleagues in the office spontaneously, for instance.
Surely this had to be the case right? All these accusations of arrogance must have come from people who did not understand me, my reticence, and my insecurity in foreign environments? And even if they were right, arrogance is not necessarily deleterious, no?
So when a leadership trainer asked me what I was going to do about this arrogance, I had no response. Was it something I had to change in the first place? Was it something you could consciously focus on?
I mean, I’m not blind to potential sources of my arrogance. I crave recognition and I seek approval. I am quick to judge people and things – sceptically (the source of too many problems). I shun human interactions. I distrust institutions, especially those within schools. I love articulating perspectives, and penning socio-political commentaries on the Internet requires a dose of self-indulgent. Yet amidst these I am cognisant of my many shortcomings. Because of my obstinacy opportunities have come and gone by.
I have been unkind to friends and acquaintances, and my hubris has – at times – gotten the better of me. In the past year I’ve tried to be a better person, to be better to others, though at the same time I can’t help but reducing that arrogance was never at the top of my mind. Perhaps sometimes in our anxiety to distil characteristics, to determine what is accepted as “right” or “wrong”, we get caught up in the specifics, forgetting that the process of being a better person or leader is rarely prescriptive. Our experiences are always unique, and one can’t commit to be more humble without getting their hands dirty, and falling along the way.
Am I any less arrogant now? I hope so. Still, loads to learn. As I wrote at the end of my Helsinki chapter, “[t]he insecurities will stick around, but with the self-pity left behind and with a renewed awareness of my arrogance trudging ahead is a lot less daunting, even if it is no less uncertain. This is most confident I have felt in years, and as I make amends new and more promising endeavours will follow”.