The Danger and Opportunity of Overconfidence


When you’re an up-and-comer in your field, working in the shadow of more accomplished people, it often feels like you’re fighting an uphill battle.

Hang in there.

Keep forging ahead. Treat people right. Don't give up. There’s always turnover at the top.

Here’s an example of what I mean…

Back in the American Civil War, there was a guy named John Sedgwick. GENERAL John Sedgwick, actually.

Sedgwick was pretty popular with his soldiers and had a reputation for being a good, experienced leader with a sense of humor. Many of his soldiers even referred to him as “Uncle John.”

So… his followers looked up to him because at some point, he earned it.

When Confident Becomes Cocky

As a seasoned officer, he had seen it all (or so he thought). And as often happens, because he had so much success and experience, he became very confident.

Some might even say he got cocky. Read the rest of the story… then you decide.

On May 9, 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Sedgwick’s men were probing the lines of the Confederate defenses, and he was directing his men where they should set up artillery.

About 1,000 yards away from them were Confederate sharpshooters who were taking pot shots at the General’s troops as they set up.

And although many of his men were ducking for cover (like any sane person would do) as bullets whizzed by, Sedgwick strolled around in the open confidently, giving grief to his men who were trying not to get hit by the bullets.

Sedgwick had “been there, done that” - and since he was so experienced and successful, he knew that those sharpshooters couldn’t hit anything from that far away. So he continued strolling around in the open, giving his soldiers a bad time for taking cover.

Now, the records from that long ago are sketchy. Most stories from the old battlefields were taken from individual hand-written diaries. But this part is pretty well-documented by several sources.

Standing out in the open, certain that he and his men were safe, Sedgwick confidently said…

"They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!"

danger of overconfidence

danger of overconfidence

And that’s when the bullet hit him just under his left eye, went into his head, and killed him.

So you tell me… freak accident? Or a totally avoidable catastrophe created by overconfidence?

Why You Should Listen to Your Soldiers

The fact is, the right answers constantly change. So do all the conditions in the world around you. Smart, humble people tend to respect that fact.

Those who get lazy or cocky… well, they don’t. 

They assume that because what they did in the past got them to a certain level of success, that their way is THE way to do things. They believe their methods are the only methods, and that they will always work best.

They don’t listen to the soldiers because, well, if the soldiers were so smart they’d be the General right?

Soldiers do the dirty work. They don’t understand the high-level stuff. That’s why the General shouldn’t listen to them... right?

That is, unless someone creates a longer-range sniper rifle... isn't that right, General?

So to those leaders who have enjoyed success: congratulations. Beware the danger of overconfidence - and keep in mind that your soldiers might have a better way of doing things on occasion. They might even save your bacon.

Also, good luck winning your war without them.

To you soldiers who aspire to greatness: Keep on fighting the good fight, and no matter what anyone who “knows better” tells you, stay outside the elephant distance.

There will always be Generals who fall because of their over-confidence, and as they fall, your day will come.

share it.png