How and Why I Could Fall

Over eight years ago I read Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster by Paul Ingrassia. The book is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the “Big Three” automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Only Ford avoided the ultimate fall of bankruptcy.

I wrote a blog post on the book, much of which is repeated here. It is an amazing reminder of both the pressures and temptations of leadership

My initial desire was to learn from the lessons of the automobile industry, both the good and the bad. Though most of the book does focus on the enormous missteps of many in the automobile industry, it is fair to give credit where credit is due. For example, in 2006, Bill Ford, holding the multiple titles of Chairman, President, and CEO of Ford, understood that his leadership was not getting the job done. So he, in essence, fired himself as President and CEO and brought new leadership to Ford. That move likely was the decisive moment that led the company to avoid bankruptcy.  “I have a lot of myself invested in this company,” Ford explained, “but not my ego.”

Unfortunately, Bill Ford’s actions were the exception and not the rule. Those in management of the Big Three and those in leadership of the union at times demonstrated such lack of leadership that we, in hindsight, wonder how leaders can head down such destructive paths.

The Essence of It All

James B. Stewart’s words on the front jacket of the book, tell the essence of the story well: “A fascinating look at how ego and hubris destroyed an industry . . .” Indeed, of all the leadership lessons learned, the most pervasive and persuasive in the book is that hubris is the downfall of leaders and, thus, their organizations.

I was thus intrigued to follow the lives and leadership paths of these leaders in the book. I quickly saw some clear patterns of leadership infected with hubris.

The Signs of Hubris

My list is not exhaustive, but I do believe it is telling. In each of the corporate leaders’ and union leaders’ lives, the following patterns began to emerge. In them you can see the signs of hubris for any leader.

  1. Leaders with hubris see others as inferior. The rest of the world does not get it. Others are just not as smart. As a result, these leaders do not listen well because others really don’t have anything worthy to say. Leaders with hubris thus lack patience with others. They definitely cannot see their own faults.
  2. Leaders with hubris are slow to see deteriorating conditions in the organizations they lead. The CEO of General Motors declared in a 2007 letter to shareholders: “Our entire team rose up to meet the collective challenges we face.” The letter was written as the two-year losses for GM totaled over $12 billion. Leaders with hubris cannot see conditions getting worse, because they cannot believe such conditions could take place under their leadership.
  3. Leaders with hubris are quick-tempered. Some of the stories of the tempers of union leaders and the leaders of the Big Three are almost unbelievable. Their condescending and demeaning treatment of others reflects their own aggrandized view of themselves. If anyone disagreed with them or got in their way, the self-righteous anger of the leader exploded.
  4. Leaders with hubris expect to be served. The CEOs of the Big Three didn’t get it. They showed up at congressional hearings for bailout money in private corporate jets. Union leaders’ threats of strikes against the car companies garnered the workers such out-of-the-norm benefits that the very existence of the companies they worked for were jeopardized. In both cases, everyone was looking out for themselves, seeking to be served rather than seeking to serve.
  5. Leaders with hubris don’t know when to step down. No person is indispensable to an organization. No leader is indispensable to an organization. We often more quickly recognize our call to a place rather than our call away from a place. Leaders with hubris try to hang on too long.

Looking in the Mirror

As I read the book and as I wrote this post, my mind captured images of past and current leaders whom I thought fit the bill perfectly of leaders with hubris. Then the thought hit me. Leaders with hubris never think they are or will be leaders with hubris. It sure is easy to talk about others who are self-serving egotists. But it is incredibly difficult to accept that I can go down that very same path.

Most of us are familiar with Proverbs 16:18: “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (CSB). But the following verse is not cited as often: “Better to be a lowly spirit with the humble than to divide the plunder with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19).

I must look in the mirror more often and see my own sinfulness and propensity toward hubris. It’s easy to read a book about other leaders who became filled with self and led with hubris. But I must realize even more poignantly that except for the grace of God I too will go down that path.

Posted on June 25, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Just this morning I was struck with this thought while reading in the Old Testament. I lingered over the following text to ask myself, “am I in danger?”

    >Then Uzziah prepared for them, for the entire army, shields, spears, helmets, body armor, bows, and slings to cast stones. And he made devices in Jerusalem, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and the corners, to shoot arrows and large stones. So his fame spread far and wide, for he was marvelously helped till he became strong. But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.

    2 Chronicles 26:14-16

  • I came here to this blog today and was prepared to “search” for the subject of arrogant pastors but here it was, one of the most recent. Thank you for the wise words. I am beginning to despair of our young sr. pastor. He is already at odds with the deacons and just yesterday took one of the (wiser, seasoned) elders to task publicly, which should totally have been handled privately or even not at all as it was a mere (non-spiritual) difference of opinion about the location of a church plant. No unkind words were said until the sr. pastor weighed in.

  • I consider this post as a direct answer from God. I had just asked my prayer-warrior mom to pray for me yesterday evening. As a member of the BODY of CHRIST I find myself conflicted about attending church. It seems as if there are almost no pastors left who actually care about Jesus as the head of the church. I know I need to attend church, but I don’t see any point in wasting my time submitting to the leadership of men who are more concerned about advancing their careers than God’s kingdom here on Earth. This (hubris) is destroying the church in America and I find pastors as the major obstacle to revival. THANK YOU for listening to the the Holy Spirit as you wrote and posted this article. Please help me and other believers like me find a way to be able to stomach the pastors of our churches. We don’t want to advance their personal agendas. We could care less that they have seminary degrees. Maybe that’s where this all begins. Please help us.

  • Christopher says on

    Our society is dominated by a sports culture, especially with our youth. Out of that culture we are constantly told that in order to succeed you have to be arrogant, you have to have a chip on your shoulder, you have to believe that you are better than everybody else. In the sports world today, hubris is viewed as confident leadership.

    A good parallel to the car CEO is Kobe Bryant, who wrecked the Lakers with his contractual demands late in his career. Lebron will probably do the same thing.

  • I am seriously and humbly taking what you wrote this morning. I deeply appreciate for put the mirror in front of me. I have one thing to ask, can a leader without conceit be smart enough to lead his or her team to greater service? Blessings

  • Prentiss Yeates says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    Do you think that a problem within the SBC is because when God shows up at a small church, there is no fan fair, no “ how did God work through your church to make this happen?”
    Is it possible we are so inclined follow leadership trends for large churches as if they can be a one size fits all ? Has the local church been harmed because the big mega church has sucked all the air out of the room with it being all about them and not about the gospel that saves mankind’s soul?

    • Fair questions, Prentiss.

    • Christopher says on

      While reading the comments of a news story about a pastor who says to “quit church” I was struck by how many said they don’t like Christians because of mega churches. To them mega churches were the epitome of self-indulgence and indifference to the world. I’m not saying that’s a fair criticism, but I found it interesting.

  • Clyde A. Bailey says on

    Thom, can I make a confession? I don’t always read your articles because I think i don’t have the time and will get to them eventually, and rarely do. I will tell you however, that our new Lead Pastor has had us (pastors and leaders) study not one but three of your books (like taking a college course with prescribed texts). I will admit that this morning’s article caught my attention and I was intrigued by the paradigm you employed and the skillful way you did not preach at those who needed to read this. A very relevant and timely article and one that deserves to be the basis of discussion among church leaders and pastoral staff. I wonder how will someone with too much hubris really change because I suspect he or she is too steeped in their twisted sense of self.

  • Paul Johnson says on

    Hubris=excessive pride or self-confidence.

    synonyms: arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, hauteur, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, superciliousness, superiority;

    My friend, sorry but that’s the way you come across at times. “Mister Know it all.”
    This is not easy to say and when I point this out there are three fingers pointing back at me and a haughty thumb in the air.
    Sharing your experience and knowledge is vital. The way you share it is so important. I do get tired of 9 of this and 11 of that. And most of all: the tone you share it in is crucial because people can get turned off by someone perceived as a “got all the answers know it all.
    All this in Christian Love my Brother! Ouch! I’m sure.

    • Yes ouch. But noted.

    • Vernon Scaler says on

      Paul –

      I don’t recognize the Thom Rainer you just described.

      Why did you feel compelled to write your harsh comments “in Christian love”?

      • theartist says on

        Hi Paul. Thom is a man speaking from experience. This classifies him as “someone who knows” rather than a “know it all.” There is a very distinct difference between the two. Thanks.

    • Christopher says on

      I’m sorry Paul, but your’re just wrong. I have often been amazed at the humility and restraint with which Rainer interacts with those who comment.

    • James F. Gregory says on

      Paul –

      Your comments are simply wrong and serve no edifying purpose. It’s especially wrong to blast someone, and then declare you’ve done it in Christian love.

    • Paul, he pretty much has all the answers.

  • Thank you, Ralph. I am indeed grateful God keeps waking me up to my own sinful disposition.

  • Hey Thom, Very interesting. I must admit I had to look up hubris; but I did learn something from doing so. Thanks for helping me to exercise my brain.