[January 21, 2019] When my son was growing up, he often enjoyed playing on our small-town’s sports teams. We all know the ones; no kid is refused a spot on the team, and everyone gets to play. His baseball team was in last place; 11th and yet he came home with a trophy. He thought it was “really cool,” but there would be hidden costs to his overconfidence that would manifest itself later.
The next year, my son passed from grade school to middle school, where was greater sports competition. Fewer teams meant a selection process, and not everyone would make the team. Since my son was very athletic, he was able to make the team despite a lack of baseball knowledge or experience. As a potential left-handed pitcher, the coach actively recruited him for the team. My son thought he was the cat’s meow.
His confidence came to a crashing halt when my son was unable to play the game without serious tactical and skill-based errors. It was, in a word, “embarrassing.” I’ll never forget the look on his face during the first game as he was responsible for some throwing errors, wild pitches, and dropped balls.
When you think you’re good, but you’re not, it can be an unforgettable yet educational experience. Leadership is like this. Confidence is important to be an effective leader. But a leader must also be knowledgeable enough about their skill set and conditions under which they work, to know when to act and when not to act — knowing which is not easy.
Being a student of military history, I read many stories of battles and wars that were led by overconfident generals. The tragedy can cost the lives for many and be the seed that lost the war. For example, nearly every historian I ever read or talked with told me about the great military strategist in Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He is viewed as a great man.
But, at the Battle of Gettysburg, General Lee’s overconfidence led to the defeat of his army and placed the Confederacy on the patch to eventual defeat. Lee showed all the necessary traits of a great leader, but his many battlefield successes led him, that day, to overestimate his army’s capability. That was his downfall and that of what he stood to support. The hidden costs were the destruction of the wealth, reputation, and much of the culture of the South.