Leadership expert on Sam Altman and delusional overconfident CEOs

Just about every highly successful person has confidence. Some, like ex-OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, believe in taking it to an extreme — and that’s when they turn from inspiring to frightening, says a leadership expert.

“Organizations should be very frightened of having CEOs who are delusionally overconfident,” Don Moore, a leadership and communication professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, tells CNBC Make It.

The circumstances around Altman’s abrupt departure from OpenAI on Friday and speculated arrival at Microsoft on Monday are still unclear, and neither OpenAI nor Microsoft immediately responded to Make It’s request for comment. Altman himself could not be reached for comment.

What’s more clear is the 38-year-old’s leadership ethos: One of his top keys to success is to “have almost too much self-belief,” he wrote in a 2019 blog post.

“Self-belief is immensely powerful,” wrote Altman. “The most successful people I know believe in themselves almost to the point of delusion.”

Altman is “far from the first entrepreneur to have endorsed the idea that you have to believe in yourself, above all else” to succeed, says Moore. But overconfidence can pose problems for a leader, along with anyone who buys into their delusion or is otherwise affected by it, he notes.

Here’s why.

The pros and cons of extreme overconfidence

Extreme overconfidence can help people rise to lofty heights. It can also make them and the people around them prone to “dysfunctions, perversities [and] errors,” especially when they’re too arrogant to plan for foreseeable threats, says Moore.

In his blog post, titled “How To Be Successful,” Altman cited billionaire Elon Musk’s “absolute certainty” that SpaceX could soon send a rocket to Mars as the “benchmark for what conviction looks like.”

At the time, Musk was primarily splitting his time between running Tesla and SpaceX, and touting plans to launch a cargo mission to Mars by 2022. Earlier this month, a Reuters investigation discovered a litany of undisclosed workplace injuries at SpaceX — from crushed hands and fingers to serious head injuries and even death — that are reportedly a direct result of Musk’s aggressive pursuit of a Mars mission.

Overconfident leaders often convince people to follow them, from employees to investors and board members, only to eventually fall short of the outsize expectations their confidence created, Moore says.

“That’s part of why voters are so often disappointed by the candidates that they help vote into office,” he explains. “We pick the ones who are making grandiose promises, who inspire our hopes for reform, but reality is complicated and the changes they can actually introduce often fall short of what their most enthusiastic supporters hope for.”

How to balance confidence with self-awareness

In Altman’s blog post, he identified the No. 1 thing any overconfident leader needs to do to prevent catastrophic mistakes or widespread alienation: Get better at accepting criticism.

Seeking out valid criticism can be “hard and often painful,” but it’s necessary because “it is what separates self-belief from self-delusion,” Altman wrote.

Moore agrees. He also says it’s easy for leaders to “pay lip service” to the idea of accepting criticism, and much harder to actually follow through.

“I think this is a challenge for every leader,” Moore says. “Courageous leaders need to seek out that sort of criticism, ask themselves how they’re messing up, anticipate the errors that they’re most likely to be making, and listen hard when criticism comes their way.”

Altman may well have taken that lesson to heart. As Moore points out, the fact that hundreds of OpenAI employees publicly voiced their support for Altman after his ouster probably means that many in the company viewed him as an effective leader.

If that’s the case, then Altman’s thesis on leadership may need to be reframed, says Moore: Don’t underestimate your own ability, because a lack of confidence can also prevent you from becoming successful.

“I think the impostor syndrome is a real thing,” Moore says. “But that doesn’t mean that you should lie to yourself, or others, about how good you are or how much you can accomplish.”

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