The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RLF Reflection: “Avoiding the God Complex: Why Leadership Requires Trial and Error”

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During the asynchronous session on Thursday, February 4th, 2021, RLF fellow Nancy Curtis gave a presentation about “Avoiding the God Complex: Why Leadership Requires Trial and Error.” The god complex is the belief that one already possesses the single correct solution or that they are the most equipped to discover that solution. This complex stems from the need to be in control.

The god complex is something that can be taught and is often engrained within formal education. Individuals are taught that asking for help correlates with appearing weak or incompetent. This idea is present within the educational system through the current structure of classes and testing where students must soak in everything a single teacher presents and later partake in standardized testing. This structure of education limits growth and creative thinking.

The god complex within leadership is harmful for individual growth and development. Nancy explained that it is impossible for a single leader to have the right answer immediately. The inability to be wrong or incorrect about a topic stunts self-expression and creativity. These are qualities that are important within effective leadership.

Nancy explained that trial and error could be the best alternative to combatting the god complex within leadership. Science utilizes trial and error because the answers to questions are not always apparent at the beginning. This concept can be applied to life where the solutions are also rarely known at the beginning. Nancy encouraged leaders to promote trial and error within leadership though leading by example, encouraging active discussion and disagreement surrounding various topics, and normalizing not ‘getting it’ right away or even not ‘getting it’ ever. These steps can promote self-expression, creativity, and growth among leaders.

Trial and error within leadership is important as the world grows more and more interconnected and complex. Current and future leaders will rarely have the correct solution right away which makes encouraging individual comfort with not ‘getting it’ relevant to modern leadership. As leaders we need to have the ability to grow and express ourselves and our ideas to the fullest extent possible in order to progress in our goals.


-Written by Janae Harris, Class of 2021 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow 

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals. 

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences