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Leadership and Self-Deception

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This third edition of an international bestseller—over 2 million copies sold worldwide and translated into 33 languages—details how its powerful insights on motivation, conflict, and collaboration can benefit organizations as well as individuals.

Since its original publication in 2000, Leadership and Self-Deception has become an international word-of-mouth phenomenon. Rather than tapering off, it sells more copies every year. The book's central insight—that the key to leadership lies not in what we do but in who we are—has proven to have powerful implications not only for organizational leadership but in readers' personal lives as well.

Leadership and Self-Deception uses an entertaining story everyone can relate to about a man facing challenges at work and at home to expose the fascinating ways that we blind ourselves to our true motivations and unwittingly sabotage the effectiveness of our own efforts to achieve happiness and increase happiness. We trap ourselves in a “box” of endless self-justification. Most importantly, the book shows us the way out. Readers will discover what millions already have learned—how to consistently tap into and act on their innate sense of what's right, dramatically improving all of their relationships.

This third edition includes new research about the self-deception gap in organizations and the keys to closing this gap. The authors offer guidance for how to assess the in-the-box and out-of-the-box mindsets in yourself and in your organization. It also includes a sample of Arbinger's latest bestseller, The Outward Mindset.

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1 Bud


It was a brilliant summer morning shortly before nine, and I was hurrying to the most important meeting of my new job at Zagrum Company. As I walked across the tree-lined grounds, I recalled the day two months earlier when I had first entered the secluded campus-style headquarters to interview for a senior management position. I had been watching the company for more than a decade from my perch at one of its competitors and had tired of finishing second. After eight interviews and three weeks spent doubting myself and waiting for news, I was hired to lead one of Zagrum’s product lines.

Now, four weeks later, I was about to be introduced to a senior management ritual peculiar to Zagrum: a daylong one-on-one meeting with the executive vice president, Bud Jefferson. Bud was the right-hand man to Zagrum’s president, Kate Stenarude. And due to a shift within the executive team, he was about to become my new boss.

I had tried to find out what this meeting was all about, but my colleagues’ explanations confused me. They mentioned a discovery that solves “people problems”; how no one really focuses on results; and that something about the “Bud Meeting,” as it was called, and strategies that evidently follow from it, are key to Zagrum’s incredible success. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was eager to meet, and impress, my new boss.


2 A Problem


“You have a problem,” Bud continued. “The people at work know it, your wife knows it, your mother-in-law knows it. I’ll bet even your neighbors know it.” Despite the digs, he was smiling warmly. “The problem is that you don’t know it.”

I was taken aback. How could I know I had a problem if I didn’t even know what the problem was? “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” I said, trying to exhibit calm.

Bud nodded. “Consider a few experiences,” he said. “For example, think of times when you’ve known that your wife needed the car next and you noticed that it was almost out of fuel. Have you ever taken it home anyway, telling yourself that she could fill it just as easily as you?”

I thought about it for a moment. “I suppose I’ve done that, yes.” But so what? I wondered.

“Or have you ever promised to spend time with the kids but backed out at the last minute because something more appealing came up?”

My mind turned to my boy, Todd. It was true that I avoided doing much with him anymore. I didn’t think that was entirely my fault, however.


3 Self-Deception


“Do you have kids, Tom?”

I was grateful for the simple question and felt the life come back to my face. “Why, yes, one actually. His name is Todd. He’s 16.”

Bud smiled. “Do you remember how you felt when Todd was born—how it seemed to change your perspective on life?”

I strained to find my way back to the memories of Todd’s birth—through the pain, through the heartache. Diagnosed at a fairly young age with attention deficit disorder, he had been a difficult child, and my wife, Laura, and I clashed constantly over what to do with him. Things had only gotten worse as he grew older. Todd and I didn’t have much of a relationship. But at Bud’s invitation, I attempted a remembrance of the time and emotion surrounding his birth. “Yes, I remember,” I began pensively. “I remember holding him close, pondering my hope for his life—feeling inadequate, even overwhelmed, but at the same time grateful.” The memory lessened for a moment the pain I felt in the present.

“That was the way it was for me too,” Bud said. “Would you mind if I told you a story that began with the birth of my first child, David?”


4 The Problem beneath Other Problems


“Have you ever heard of Ignaz Semmelweis?” Bud asked. (He pronounced it “Ignawts Semelvice.”)

“No, I don’t think so. Is it a sickness or something?”

“No, no,” he said with a chuckle. “But close. Semmelweis was a European doctor, an obstetrician, in the mid-1800s. He worked at the Vienna General Hospital, an important re-search hospital, where he tried to get to the bottom of a horrendous mortality rate among women in the maternity ward. In the section of the ward where Semmelweis practiced, the mortality rate was 1 in 10. Think of it. One in every 10 women giving birth there died! Can you imagine?”

“I wouldn’t have let my wife near the place,” I said.

“You wouldn’t have been alone. Vienna General had such a frightening reputation that some women actually gave birth on the street and then went to the hospital.”

“I don’t blame them,” I said.

“The collection of symptoms associated with these deaths,” Bud continued, “became known as ‘childbed fever.’ Conventional medical science at the time called for separate treatment for each symptom. Inflammation meant that excess blood was causing swelling—so they bled the patient or applied leeches. They treated fever the same way. Trouble breathing meant the air was bad—so they improved ventilation. And so on. But nothing worked. More than half of the women who contracted the disease died within days.


5 Beneath Effective Leadership


“After nine years at the law firm,” Bud began, “I left to become general counsel of Sierra Product Systems. Do you remember Sierra?”

Sierra had pioneered several of the processes that Zagrum had exploited to climb to its place at the top of the high-tech manufacturing heap. “Of course,” I replied. “Their technologies changed the industry. Whatever happened to them?”

“They were acquired—by Zagrum Company.”

“Really? I never heard that.”

“The deal was sort of complicated. But the long and short of it is that Zagrum acquired most of Sierra’s useful intellectual property—patents and so on. That was 16 years ago. At the time, I was COO of Sierra and came to Zagrum as part of the deal. I had no idea what I was getting into.” Bud reached for his glass and took a drink. “At the time, Zagrum was a bit of a mystery. But I was introduced to the mystery of Zagrum in a hurry—in my second major meeting, to be exact.

“Being intimately familiar with the key acquisitions from Sierra, I joined Zagrum as part of the executive team. In my first meeting, I was given several difficult assignments to complete before the next meeting in two weeks. It was a heavy load, learning the business and all.


6 The Deep Choice That Determines Influence


“So what’s this something deeper?” I asked curiously.

“What I’ve already introduced to you—self-deception,” Bud replied. “Whether I’m in or out of the box.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, wanting to know more.

“As we’ve been talking about, no matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside. And how we’re feeling about them depends on whether we’re in or out of the box concerning them. Let me illustrate that point further with a couple of examples.

“About a year ago, I flew from Dallas to Phoenix on a flight that had open seating. While boarding, I overheard the boarding agent say that the plane was not sold out but that there would be very few unused seats. I felt lucky and relieved to find a window seat open with a vacant seat beside it about a third of the way back on the plane. Passengers still in need of seats continued streaming down the aisle, their eyes scanning and evaluating the desirability of their dwindling seating options. I set my briefcase on the vacant middle seat, took out that day’s paper, and started to read. I remember peering over the top corner of the paper at the people who were coming down the aisle. At the sight of body language that said my briefcase’s seat was being considered, I spread the paper wider, making the seat look as undesirable as possible. Do you get the picture?”


7 People or Objects


“How do you know her?” I asked worriedly. “And how’d you hear about what happened?”

Bud smiled reassuringly. “Don’t be fooled by the distance between buildings. Word travels fast. I heard about it from a couple of your quality team leaders who were discussing it over lunch in the Building 5 cafeteria. It seems you made quite an impression.”

I struggled to keep my composure and control my expression.

“As for knowing her,” Bud continued, “I don’t really, except that I try to know the names of as many people as I can around the company. It gets more difficult by the month with all of our growth, though.”

I nodded, amazed that someone in Bud’s position would worry about knowing the name of someone who was at Joyce’s level in the company.

“You know those pictures we take for clearance badges?”

I nodded.

“Well, the executive team members receive copies of all those pictures, and we try to familiarize ourselves with, if not completely memorize, the faces and names of the people who join the company.


8 Doubt


The August sun was blazing overhead as I made my way back to the path that paralleled Kate’s Creek. Although I had grown up in St. Louis and had lived for years on the East Coast, I had spent enough time in milder climates to become permanently uncomfortable with the humidity that accompanied Connecticut’s summer heat. I was grateful to slip beneath the trees as I turned in the direction of Building 8.

For the exposure I was feeling on the inside, however, there was no cover. I was on completely unfamiliar ground. Nothing I had experienced in my career had prepared me for my meeting with Bud. But although I was feeling quite unsure of myself and was far less convinced that I was on the top of the Zagrum advancement heap than I had been just a few hours before, I also had never felt better about what I was doing. I knew there was something I had to do during this break—I just hoped that Joyce Mulman was around to allow me to do it.

“Sheryl, could you tell me where Joyce Mulman’s desk is?” I asked my secretary as I walked past her and into my office. As I turned from putting my notebook on the table, I noticed that Sheryl was standing at my door, a worried look on her face.


9 Kate


I had met Kate just once. She’d been the final of my eight interviewers during the hiring process. I liked her instantly, as I’d since found out was common to nearly everyone in the company. Her story was in some ways the story of Zagrum, and like Zagrum’s story, Kate’s was freely passed along to new employees. She had joined the company fresh out of college some 25 years earlier, with a degree in history. One of the first 20 employees at Zagrum, she started as an order-fulfillment clerk. In those days, it seemed that Zagrum’s future was in perpetual doubt. After five years, Kate, by then Zagrum’s director of sales, left the company for a better opportunity, only to change her mind after a last-ditch personal appeal by Lou Herbert. Since that time, and until Lou’s retirement, Kate had been second in command at Zagrum. At Lou’s retirement, she was elevated to president and CEO.

“Hello, Tom,” she said, extending her hand to me. “It’s good to see you again. Is life treating you well?”


10 Questions


“Hi Tom,” Bud said warmly as we walked through the doors. “Did you have a good lunch?”

“It was too eventful for lunch, actually,” I replied.

“Really? I look forward to hearing about it.… Hey, Kate.”

“Hi, Bud,” she said, walking over to the minifridge of juices. “Sorry I ruined your surprise.”

“I didn’t intend your coming as a surprise, actually. I just wasn’t sure whether you’d be able to make it, so I didn’t want to get Tom worked up for nothing. I’m glad you could come.” He walked toward the conference table. “Let’s all sit down and get to it. We’re a little behind.”

I went to the same chair I had sat in that morning, with my back to the window, near the middle of the conference table. As I did so, Kate, who was sizing up the room, suggested that we move closer to the whiteboard. Who was I to argue?

Kate sat in the seat nearest the board on the other side of the table, and I took the seat across from her, my back still to the window. She motioned Bud to sit between us at the head of the table, his back to the board. “Come on, Bud. It’s your meeting.”


11 Self-Betrayal


“Now at first you’re going to think this is a silly story. It’s not even a workplace story. We’ll apply it to the workplace when we get a little more under our belts. Anyway, it’s just a simple little story—mundane even. But it illustrates well how we get in the box in the first place.

“One night a number of years ago, when David was just an infant, I was awakened by his wailing cries. He was probably four months old or so at the time. I remember glancing at the clock. It was around 1:00 AM. In the flash of that moment, I had an impression or a sense or a feeling—a thought of something I should do. It was this: ‘Get up and tend to David so that Nancy can sleep.’

“If you think about it, this sort of sense is very basic,” he continued. “We’re all people. And when we’re out of the box and seeing others as people, we have a very basic sense about others—namely that, like ourselves, they have hopes, needs, cares, and fears. And on occasion, as a result of this sense, we have impressions of things to do for others—things we think might help them, things we can do for them, things we want to do for them. You know what I’m talking about?”


12 Characteristics of Self-Betrayal


“To begin with, think about this: When did Nancy seem worse to me, before I betrayed myself or afterward?”

“Afterward, for sure,” I said, his question pulling me back to his story.

“Yes,” said Bud, “and when do you suppose sleep seemed more important to me, before I betrayed myself or after?”

“Oh, I guess after.”

“And when do you suppose other interests—like my work responsibilities the next morning, for example—seemed more pressing to me, before I betrayed myself or after?”

“Again, after.”

Bud paused for a moment.

“Now here’s another question: Take a look again at how I started to see Nancy. Do you suppose that in reality she’s as bad as she seemed to me after I betrayed myself?”

“No, probably not,” I said.

“I can vouch for Nancy,” said Kate. “The woman described up there bears no resemblance.”

“That’s true,” Bud agreed.

“Yeah, but what if she did?” I interjected. “I mean, what if she really was a lazy and inconsiderate person, and even a bad wife, for that matter? Wouldn’t that make a difference?”


13 Life in the Box


I looked up at the board again.

Yes! I cheered silently. All of this trouble happened because Bud betrayed a feeling that he had for Nancy. But I rarely have those kinds of feelings for Laura. And the reason why is obvious—Laura is so much worse than Nancy. No one would feel they should do things for her given the way she is. My case is different. Bud got into trouble because he betrayed himself. I’m not betraying myself. I sat back, satisfied.

“Okay, I think I get this,” I said, preparing to ask my question. “I think I understand the idea of self-betrayal. Check me on it: As people, we have a sense of what other people might need and how we can help them. Right?”

“Yes,” Bud and Kate said, almost in unison.

“And if I have that sort of sense and go against it, then I betray my own sense of what I should do for someone. That’s what we call “self-betrayal.” Right?”

“That’s right. Yes.”

“And if I betray myself, then I start seeing things differently—my view of others, myself, my circumstances—everything is distorted in a way that makes me feel okay about what I’m doing.”


14 Collusion


“So far,” Bud said, “we’ve been examining the internal experience of someone who’s in the box. But as you can imagine, my box can have quite an impact on others.

“Think about it,” he said, walking to the board. “Suppose this is me—in my box,” he said, drawing a box with a stick figure in it.

“If I am here in my box, what am I communicating to others?”

“What are you communicating?”


“Well … you’re blaming them, I guess.”

“Exactly. And do you suppose other people are generally walking around saying to themselves, ‘Gee, I really feel blameworthy today; I need someone to blame me’?”

I laughed. “Yeah, right.”

“I don’t think so, either,” Bud said. “Most people are generally walking around thinking something like, ‘Look, I’m not perfect, but doggone it, I’m doing just about as well as you could expect under the circumstances.’ And since most of us have self-justifying images we’re carrying around with us, most people are already in a defensive posture, always ready to defend their self-justifying images against attack. So if I’m in the box, blaming others, my blame invites them to do—what?


15 Box Focus


“It has everything to do with work,” I said, surprised by the strength of my opinion.

“How?” Bud asked.

“How?” I replied.

Bud waited for an answer.

“Well, to begin with,” I said, “nearly everyone at work is in the box, as near as I can tell. At least nearly everyone at Tetrix was.”

“So what?”

“So what?” I repeated in surprise.

“Yeah, so what?” he said.

“Well, if we’re in the box, we’ll be inviting others to be in the box, too, and we’ll end up with all kinds of conflict that gets in the way of what we’re trying to do.”

“Which is what?” Bud asked.

I hesitated, unsure of what Bud meant.

“You just said that all of that conflict would get in the way of what we’re trying to do,” Bud continued. “So my question is, what is it we’re trying to do?”

“Trying to be productive, I suppose.”

“Ah,” Bud said, as though he had finally found what he was looking for. “So the box gets in the way of our achieving results.”


16 Box Problems


“Do you remember my experience in San Francisco?” Bud asked.


“Remember the problems I had there? How I wasn’t engaged, wasn’t committed, and was making things more difficult for others?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

Bud erased everything that had been written next to the self-betrayal diagram. Then he wrote the following:

“Okay, here are a few of the problems I had in San Francisco,” he said, as he stepped back from the board. “My ‘symptoms,’ as it were. But let’s add as many kinds of problems to this list as we can. What are some other common people problems in organizations?”

“Conflict,” I said. “Lack of motivation.”

“Stress,” Kate added.

“Poor teamwork,” I said.

“Hold on a minute,” said Bud, writing furiously. “I’m trying to get them all up here. Okay, go ahead. What else?”

“Backbiting, alignment problems, lack of trust,” Kate said.

“Lack of accountability,” I offered. “Bad attitudes. Communication problems.”

“Okay, good,” Bud said, finishing the last few. “That’s a good enough list. Now let’s take a look and compare it with the story right over here where I failed to get up and tend to my child.”


17 Lou


It was 8:15 AM, and Bud wasn’t in the conference room yet. I was starting to wonder if I’d heard him correctly when the doors burst open and into the room walked an elderly gentleman.

“Tom Callum?” he said with a hearty smile, extending his hand.


“Glad to meet you. My name’s Lou. Lou Herbert.”

“Lou Herbert?” I said in astonishment.

I’d seen pictures of Lou and some old video, but his presence was so unexpected that I never would have recognized him without his introduction.

“Yes. Sorry for the shock. Bud’s on his way. He’s just checking on a couple of things for a meeting we have this afternoon.”

I was dumbstruck. No words came to mind, so I just stood there nervously.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” he said.

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Bud called last night and asked if I could join you guys this morning. He wanted me to explain a few things about my history here. I was coming over today anyway for this afternoon’s meeting. So here I am.”


18 Leadership in the Box


“My youngest boy, Cory, who’s now almost 40, was a handful. Drugs, drinking—you name it, he did it. Everything came to a head when he was arrested for selling drugs during his senior year in high school.

“At first I wanted to deny it. No Herbert ever did drugs. And to sell them—that was unthinkable. I stomped around demanding that this injustice be exposed. It couldn’t be true. Not about my boy. So I demanded a full trial. Our lawyer recommended against it, and the district attorney offered a plea bargain that included only 30 days in jail. But I wouldn’t have it. ‘I’ll be damned if my son is ever going to go to jail,’ I said. And so we fought.

“But we lost, and Cory ended up spending a full year in the youth detention facility up in Bridgeport. As far as I was concerned, it was a blight on the family name. I visited him twice the whole year.

“When he got home, we hardly spoke. I rarely asked him anything, and when I did, he responded with barely audible one-word answers. He fell back into the wrong crowd, and within three months he was arrested again, for shoplifting.


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