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Self-importance is self-destructive

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY I can make it rain just by washing my car, weeding, or hand-watering the plants that line my driveway. This weekend, I did all three. Monday, it rained. Not just a drizzle, either -- four hours of driving rain. Just so you know, it doesn't rain in California in June. Ever.

No, I don't really think I'm a rainmaker. I'm not a lunatic. But if I said I never, ever -- not even a little -- believe that the things I do or desire can somehow affect the weather, the stock market, a poker hand, or whether the Yankees win or lose, I'd be lying.

We all have our own quirky little superstitions, obsessions, compulsions and all that. But as intelligent, logical, clear-thinking adults living in a modern world, we all know better, right? Well, not exactly.

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It's impressive how delusional people can be, and about matters of great import. Now, I'm not just talking about those who believe that if it's on the Internet, then it must be true. Or the millions of people who believe in ridiculous fads like colon cleansing, male enhancement, or man-made global warming.

I'm talking about people who run companies and nations.

You see, perhaps the most unfortunate side effect of business or political success is that it makes people feel self-important. Like what they say or do can literally change the laws of physics, probability, or supply and demand. 

I once knew a CEO -- in a big public company, mind you -- who was absolutely convinced that one of the biggest and most famous companies in the world was out to crush us. To deal with this menace, he created a company-wide program to ensure this phantom "crush" campaign failed. It might've worked, too -- if the threat had been real.

There also once was a guy who thought that if he could just keep buying bigger and bigger companies and get Wall Street to bless these stratospheric acquisitions, nobody would notice he didn't have a clue how to make money or run a telecommunications giant. Former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers is now serving 25 years in federal prison.

Don't even get me started on bankers, politicians, federal regulators, and the financial bubbles and crises they create. I don't think they're evil people. They just don't live in the same reality you and I live in, where personal integrity matters and actions have consequences.

Here's the thing. There's plenty written about how power corrupts leaders. I've written about how success changes executives. Power and success gives people superhuman egos that write checks their average human brains can't cash. And while that's all well and good to know, I'm not sure knowing it changes all that much. That is, unless you're really paying attention.

If you're really on the ball, you can easily spot that kind of self-important thinking in others. If you do, run the other way. Because sooner or later, one of two things will happen. Either they'll self-destruct and take everyone else down with them, or they'll do fine for themselves, at the expense of others. Either way, you'll lose by association.

What if you think that self-important person might be you? If you're a relatively grounded person, meaning you know you're just a flesh and blood human with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us, then you're probably in little danger of success or power going to your head.

If, on the other hand, you think you're special, unique, more important than you really are, that the sun rises in the morning just for you, then keep one thing in mind.

Really believing in yourself can indeed be a powerful and motivating force, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But that only works until you're in over your head. That's when self-importance becomes a self-destructive force. Unfortunately, if you're not very self-aware, then you'll probably never know when you've reached that point.

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