When the Leader Becomes a Fool

By Dr. Grant L. Cohee

Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who doesn’t know how to receive admonition anymore.” – Ecclesiastes 4:13

In my experience, most leaders are highly driven people. We are, as Marcus Buckingham notes, constantly dissatisfied with the present and always seeking to drive ourselves, and those we lead, toward a better future. Therefore, words like progress, impact, success, and achievement feel very good to us. We are driven to see often tangible, measurable results. And if that desire isn’t already sufficiently baked into our DNA, our culture’s obsession with success helps take care of the rest.

Most great leaders succeed, and they don’t just succeed once or twice. They succeed regularly enough that they begin to develop a “success narrative”; that is an expectation that any and all future endeavors should turn out exactly the way the leader anticipates. Success breeds success breeds the expectation of success. And this is where leaders often go astray.

In his book Hubristic Leadership, Sadler Smith documents a cycle where a leader’s natural strengths begin to yield success, which in turn stimulates hubris, which in turn converts the leader’s natural strengths into weakness. The leader becomes over-reliant on personal intuition. The leader engages in what Goldsmith calls “success delusion.” The leader begins to assume that they are always right. The leader may make poor decisions but self-delusion won’t allow him to see it. In short, hubris converts the leader’s greatest strengths and successes into often tragic weakness and abject failure. The leader becomes a fool.

Hubris takes no prisoners and yields indiscriminate carnage. King Saul, David, Elijah, Uzziah, Nebuchadnezzar, and Peter (to name a few), learned this the hard way. History is littered with many more leaders who learned the same, often too late. The longer I live, the more I see hubris as the primary culprit in nearly every failure of leadership. Only an hour-by-hour dose of honest self-appraisal, humble reliance on God, and true openness to those he has provided to advise us, can hope to stave off the fate of the “old and foolish king.”

Dr. Garret L. Cohee, Associate Professor of Management of the PBA Marshall E. Rinker, Sr. School of Business



Lifework is an eight-month leadership experience that runs from September to May. Each class examines the life of Jesus as the best example of a leader and influencer, as well as corporate leadership best practices.