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(In)fallible leadership: mission (im)possible?

Sylvie Deffayet Davrout , Professor, Leadership Development Chair Director

In this article, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Professor at EDHEC and Director of the Chair in Leadership Development, analyses the roles and representations of leaders (and followers) and the opposition between infallibility and humility.

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9 Apr 2024

As long as the person in charge is (still) a human being, it is difficult to imagine that he or she can avoid making mistakes. But it is possible to limit them, in particular by making the leader aware of his or her responsibilities and by calling on outside expertise. But let's ask the question seriously, since everyone - leaders and followers alike - wonders about or even believes in this myth (1): is it possible to lead without making mistakes? What do leadership theories tell us about 'infallible' leaders?


In the beginning was the follower... or the leader?

Let's start with followers (2). A certain phantasmagoria surrounding the (all-powerful) leader would have us regard him or her as infallible; this is the case when we value the charismatic leader (from the Greek kharisma), a figure of quasi-divine domination that we know even better since Max Weber (1995 [1971]) (3). Endowed with this extra-ordinary gift, the charismatic is more popular than ever, since his primary function is to do the great things expected of him, i.e. to work miracles! With such a gift, you can't go wrong and you can't be doubted. The charismatic person transports us emotionally and makes us, as followers, forget our more rational springs, such as our ability to examine things objectively and our free will (4). Relying on a vision of an infallible leader relieves us of doubt and saves us from our individual responsibility, which is sometimes burdensome. But this belief distances us from reality and from all our personal leadership resources...


Among leaders, it is not uncommon to find this invulnerable or omnipotent vision of themselves. A whole stream of leadership research has been devoted to the study of hubris, the intoxication with omnipotence found in certain narcissistic political or economic leaders (5). A feeling of invulnerability, an insatiable quest for power linked to an excess of pride or vanity which from the outside appears to be self-confidence, but which deep down (in the individual) is not: this hubris or "overconfidence" leads the person to take virtually no account of outside opinions.


From a psychological point of view, it is often overlooked that this disorder concerns individuals who lack self-confidence and who project this lack of confidence onto others. A number of studies have shown that such leaders personalities are dangerous not only for the people they lead (denying them any free will or right of expression) but also for their companies, which are often in danger of disappearing under the sway of a single vision, impervious to re-questioning (6). "You have to know how to say stop", a chairman recently told me, when his group had spent millions of euros over the last 6 years on a project that wasn't working. The blindness and denial that set in when faced with bad investments can lead to all kinds of resources being exhausted. It is essential to wake up, even late in the day, and accept that you made a mistake, before the organisation completely collapses.


In short, when these two representations meet - the leader who sees himself as all-powerful (hubris) and the followers who demand exclusive fascination - then yes, "you can lead without - ever - making a mistake". In fact: without ever admitting that you might have made a mistake. At that point, the organisation, or even the company, is in danger because the (inevitable) mistakes are no longer visible and are therefore never corrected.


Fortunately: humans are fallible

Let's leave the field of the psychopathology of power and return to a fortunately more common reality, that of the fallible leader or one who is "allowed to make mistakes", both by himself and by others.


Let's start with a world in which the absence of mistakes can become an obsession: sports refereeing. Because of their role in the game, referees prepare and train themselves to avoid making mistakes, because the right decision and a "clean" game are the raison d'être of their mission. However, referees know that with an average of 200 decisions to be made in 90 minutes of football, for example, they cannot all be completely correct. Observing referees on the field of play gives us a practical insight into this exercise of making mistakes "in the process of being made" and, a vital challenge: the game has to be restarted immediately, despite the mistake that has been made. It is precisely because they are perfectly aware of the possibility of not always making the right decision that these guarantors of the game prepare for it. How do they do this? By turning their fallibility into a resource, not a weakness (the exact opposite of narcissistic leaders) (7). This means "replaying your mistakes". By reviewing the video of the match with his peers and his N+1, the referee will be able to draw on his errors of judgement to develop and renew his ability to make decisions in a short space of time and with enormous social pressure on his shoulders. All the decisions he has made will be assessed against a global performance context.


"Expect the unexpected". It's a kind of mantra for referees, who know that they will be faced with unexpected situations that can shake their conviction, and they have no choice but to rely on their understanding of each situation, on their assistant referees and on VAR (Video Assistant Referee). But whatever the case, he is aware of his limitations and accepts them. And it is this awareness that is his strength. This psychological ability, indispensable in leadership, is called humility.


What makes a humble leader?

Humility, a word derived from humus (earth), is a psychological skill based on a willingness to see oneself realistically and accurately and a propensity to take a step back from oneself (8). It is based on 3 dimensions:

  1. self-awareness, which enables us to objectively assess our abilities and limitations;
  2. open-mindedness, with an awareness of personal imperfections (9), acceptance that some things are beyond one's control (10), openness to new ideas and learning, and a willingness to learn from others;
  3. transcendence, which enables us to go beyond our usual limits and establish a link with a wider perspective (11).


Humble leaders know and accept that they don't have all the answers and therefore actively seek the contributions of others. A leader's humility is therefore defined by a level of self-respect and self-esteem that is sufficiently deep-rooted for them to dare to share their vulnerabilities, make requests and thus gain access to new learning (12). This posture is also a source of leadership reinforcement by influencing the representation of followers who appreciate this accessible leader, who is quite simply human. But it is also an opportunity for them to develop their own skills, as long as the leader relies on them and asks them to share responsibilities.


However, it is important not to confuse this concept with modesty, which is outward-focused: "Modest behaviour is designed to reduce the extent to which people draw attention to themselves. Humility, on the other hand, refers to the person's own sense that they are not the centre of the universe" (11).


The good news is that humility can be learnt, through practices such as mentoring, coaching or training, and even simply through moments when we play the game again together! Developing a culture of mistakes, as advocated by an increasing number of company charters, would mean offering these moments of exchange as often as possible, to observe with kindness, curiosity and a critical eye the moments and ways in which mistakes are made. It's a fantastic opportunity to move forward together in managerial solidarity.



(1) Les croyances au cœur de la relation leader-follower. Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, 12 fév. 2024 - Harvard Business Review France. https://www.hbrfrance.fr/leadership/les-croyances-au-coeur-de-la-relation-leader-follower-60443

(2) Le followership, face cachée du leadership. Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, 22 nov. 2023 - Harvard Business Review France. https://www.hbrfrance.fr/leadership/le-followership-face-cachee-du-leadership-60324

(3) Économie et Société, Chavy J. & de Dampierre E. (dir.), tome I, Paris, Pocket - « Les trois types de domination légitime », article publié de façon posthume dans les Preußische Jahrbücher en 1922 (MWG, vol. I/22-4) https://www.cairn.info/revue-sociologie-2014-3-page-307.htm

(4) Leadership : l'influence des modèles internes d'autorité. Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, 26 déc. 2023 - Harvard Business Review France. https://www.hbrfrance.fr/leadership/comprendre-le-follower-a-travers-ses-theories-implicites-du-leader-60379

(5) Sadler-Smith, E. et al, (2017). Hubristic leadership: A review. Leadership, 13(5), 525-548. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1742715016680666

(6) de Vries, M.K. (2016). The Hubris Factor in Leadership. In: Garrard, P., Robinson, G. (eds) The Intoxication of Power. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137439666_5

(7) "Décider sous influences...Dans la peau de Stéphanie Frappart, arbitre de football féminine internationale". Vidéo de la conférence organisé en janvier 2024 par la Chaire Développement du leadership - https://streaming.edhec.edu/Mediasite/Play/dfd573a5498349b0b67c216af988136a1d

(8) Morris, J.A., Brotheridge C.M., & Urbanski, J. C. (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human Relations, 58(10): 1323–1350. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-14454-005

(9) Furey, R. J. (1986). So I'm not perfect: A psychology of humility. Alba House. https://www.abebooks.com/Perfect-Psychology-Humility-Robert-J-Furey/31201035921/bd

(10) Richards, N. 1988. Is Humility a Virtue?, American Philosophical Quarterly 25: 253–259, 1992. Humility. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. https://philpapers.org/rec/RICIHA

(11) Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford university press. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4317046

(12a) Pour quoi fabriquer des managers réflexifs ? Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Juliette Fronty, Nicolle Browne. Dans Revue internationale de psychosociologie et de gestion des comportements organisationnels 2017/Supplement (HS), pages 57 à 71. https://www.cairn.info/revue-internationale-de-psychosociologie-de-gestion-des-comportements-organisationnels-2017-Supplement-page-57.htm?ref=doi

(12b) La chaire Développement du leadership propose d’ailleurs un « Parcours Leader réflexif » de 30h https://www.edhec.edu/fr/recherche-et-faculte/centres-et-chaires/chaire-en-developpement-du-leadership/formations-managers/1-parcours-leader-reflexif


Photo de Kyle Johnson sur Unsplash

Leadership (in)faillible : mission (im)possible ?
9 Apr 2024
(In)fallible leadership: mission (im)possible?
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In this article, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Professor at EDHEC and Director of the Chair in Leadership Development, analyses the roles and representations of leaders (and followers) and the opposition between infallibility and humility.
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Is it possible to lead without making mistakes? What do leadership theories tell us about 'infallible' leaders? Why is humility an underestimated strength?

In this article, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Professor at #EDHEC and Director of the Chair in Leadership Development, analyses the different facets of this subject, drawing on her own work and recent studies.

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#MakeAnImpact #PassionNeverRests

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