In a village long ago, there lived a young boy who loved nothing as much as competing in athletic contests. Because he was fit and strong, he usually triumphed and grew to love the adulation he received from the villagers around him.

One day, he challenged two other youths to a race from one end of town to the other. The villagers all lined up to watch. The boy won, and the townspeople cheered wildly.

"Who else wants to race me?" the boy said. "Come on, are you all afraid?"

An elderly woman was watching the races, and she grew annoyed at the boy's arrogance. So, she prodded two elderly men to challenge him. They could barely make their way to the starting line, but they seemed willing to compete.

"What's this?" The boy was puzzled. How could he win the applause he craved by beating two old men who could hardly stagger two steps?

The old woman walked up and whispered in his ear: "Do you want applause for this race?"

"Of course," said the boy.

"Finish together," the woman said.

The boy did as he was told and received the loudest applause of his life when the three of them reached the finish line, side by side.

That boy learned a valuable lesson that day. No one likes arrogance.

Of all the human failings that can destroy a person or a business, arrogance is the deadliest. It is the most readily acquired, the easiest to justify and the hardest to recognize in ourselves. Arrogance can infect all employees in a company with the silent destructiveness of a computer virus.

Herb Kelleher, the now retired head of Southwest Airlines, understood that arrogance is the greatest danger to a successful company.

In 1993, Kelleher began his annual letter to all employees by describing the major threat to Southwest Airlines at the time in these words: "The number one threat is us!" He went on to say, "We must not let success breed complacency; cockiness; greediness; laziness; indifference; preoccupation with nonessentials; bureaucracy; hierarchy; quarrelsomeness; or obliviousness to threats posed by the outside world."

There is nothing at all wrong with being proud of your company and the work you do. In fact, if you don't take pride in your work, you are probably not doing the best job you can do. But pride is not arrogance.

Unfortunately, many leaders today confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence in one's ability is a critical element in the willingness to take risks while still steering the ship. Arrogance takes risks by assuming everyone will get on board even when the boat has a hole in it.

According to an article in The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist newsletter, arrogant people "inflate their self-importance and see themselves as better than others, purport to be more knowledgeable than others, consider their own behavior acceptable, make others feel inferior, avoid blame and pin blame on others, discount feedback, don't perform their job well and are less likely to help others."

Mackay's Moral: Don't let arrogance get in the way of "finishing together."

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail