OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks to the media as he arrives for the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference at the Sun Valley Lodge on July 11, 2023 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images
Almost every very successful person has self-confidence. Some, like former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, believe in taking it to the extreme — and then they go from inspiring to scary, says a leadership expert.
“Organizations should be very afraid of having CEOs who are delusionally overconfident,” Don Moore, a professor of leadership and communications at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, tells CNBC Make It.
The circumstances surrounding Altman’s abrupt departure from OpenAI on Friday and his presumed arrival at Microsoft on Monday remain unclear, and neither OpenAI nor Microsoft immediately responded to Make It’s request for comment. Altman himself could not be reached for comment.
The 38-year-old’s leadership ethos is becoming clearer: one of his most important keys to success is “almost too much self-confidence,” he wrote in a blog post in 2019.
“Self-confidence is immensely powerful,” Altman wrote. “The most successful people I know believe in themselves almost to the point of self-deception.”
Altman was “far from the first entrepreneur to embrace the idea that you have to believe in yourself above all else” to be successful, Moore says. But overconfidence can cause problems for a leader and for anyone who subscribes to their delusion or is otherwise affected by it, he notes.
Extreme overconfidence can help people reach great heights. It can also make them and those around them vulnerable to “dysfunction and perversity.” [and] Mistakes, especially when they’re too arrogant to plan for predictable 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 a “measure of what conviction looks like.”
At the time, Musk spent most of his time running Tesla and SpaceX and announcing plans to launch a cargo mission to Mars by 2022. Earlier this month, a Portal investigation uncovered 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.
Overconfidence often convinces people to follow them, from employees to investors to board members, only to ultimately fall short of the inflated expectations their confidence created, Moore says.
“That’s one reason why voters are so often disappointed in the candidates who help vote them into office,” he explains. “We choose those who make grandiose promises that raise our hopes for reform, but the reality is complicated and the changes they can actually introduce often fall short of what their most enthusiastic supporters hope for.”
In Altman’s blog post, he identified the most important thing every overconfident leader must do to prevent catastrophic mistakes or widespread alienation: become more accepting of criticism.
The search for valid criticism can be “difficult and often painful,” but it is necessary because “it is what separates confidence from self-deception,” Altman wrote.
Moore agrees. He also says that it’s easy for leaders to pay “lip service” to the idea of accepting criticism and that it’s much harder to actually implement it.
“I think that’s a challenge for any leader,” Moore says. “Courageous leaders must look for this kind of criticism, ask themselves why they are messing up, anticipate the mistakes they are most likely to make, and listen carefully when criticism comes their way.”
Altman may have taken this lesson to heart. As Moore points out, the fact that hundreds of OpenAI employees publicly expressed their support for Altman after his ouster likely means that many in the company viewed him as an effective leader.
If that’s the case, Altman’s leadership thesis may need to be reformulated, says Moore: Don’t underestimate your own abilities, because a lack of self-confidence can also prevent you from succeeding.
“I think imposter syndrome is a real thing,” Moore says. “But that doesn’t mean you should lie to yourself or others about how good you are or how much you can accomplish.”
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