Self-deception affects everyone. It’s like being stuck in a box–despite our best intentions, we have a biased view of problems, are blind to their underlying causes and our roles in them. It erodes our effectiveness and happiness levels in work and life, and can spread like a virus to infect everyone around us. In this summary of Leadership and Self-Deception, we’ll give a synopsis of the book, explain “the box”, how we get stuck in it, and how to free ourselves to see new possibilities and solutions.

For the full mojo, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.

Leadership and Self-Deception summary_book summary bundle

This book is written as a parable, set in the Zagrum Company. The parable starts with Tom Callum, one of Zagrum’s new senior managers/ division heads, being invited for a day-long, one-on-one “self-deception meeting” with his new boss, Bud Jefferson. Such meetings are a tradition at Zagrum – they’re such a crucial part of Zagrum’s success that the top management invests personal time to inculcate the ideas in every senior management staff who joins Zagrum.

The fable takes us through Tom’s discovery process and “aha” moments, as he realizes that he has been “in the box”, and sees how it has affected his relationships and results at work and at home.

Understanding The Box

Self-deception is a problem encountered by every human being. It’s like being stuck in a box – we become blind to what’s really going on, including our roles in problems. This is what is means in a nutshell (do get more details from the book or our full book summary):

Leadership and Self-Deception summary_overview


As human beings, we intuitively know what we should do for others. When we’re out of the box, we see what we can do, and we often want to do things for others (e.g. holding the door for someone, apologizing for a mistake, sharing a useful piece of information). Yet, we often don’t do what we know we should, i.e. we betray ourselves. Once we betray ourselves, we start to create justifications for our lack of action – we exaggerate others’ fault, inflate our own virtue, magnify things that justify our self-betrayal, and blame others for making us feel/ act the way we do – which skews how we see the world.

Leadership and Self-Deception summary_in the box
Imagine you failed to complete a project on time. You know you should take responsibility, but instead, came up with a white lie about being very ill that week. You’ve just betrayed yourself. Soon, you start to notice how Susan had a mistake in her submission, and Tom missed out an important reference. You feel better, thinking how sloppily they’ve rushed through their work, unlike all of the previous times when you completed your projects perfectly. Before long, you find yourself thinking, “No wonder I couldn’t complete my work – all these slackers are just putting up half-baked stuff and I’m the only one taking it seriously!”

The book includes several other relatable, everyday examples to show how the box affects us and the people around us, both at work and at home. Some highlights include:

• Living in the Box. With time, some boxes may become so innate to us that we carry them with us, and we constantly see things through our biases and self-justifying lenses.

• Collusion. When we’re in the box, we focus on blame and justifications, which trigger others to also get into their boxes; A downward spiral begins and we basically collude to stay in our respective boxes.

• Thus, when we’re “in the box”, our effectiveness is limited and no amount of skills and techniques will work (including tolerating others, changing our outward behaviour etc.). Self-deception can be one of the biggest hindrances to organizational results, with symptoms like a lack of commitment, trust and accountability, conflict, stress, poor teamwork, and communication issues.

Do get a copy of the book or our full book summary for more details of the ideas above, as well as tips on how to get out of the box and stay out of the box.


The principles in this book can be applied to all aspects of your work and personal life. Based on real-life feedback from readers, Arbinger has identified 5 useful areas of application: hiring, leadership and team-building, conflict resolution, staff transformation, and  personal development (more details provided in the book / summary).

Review these ideas and tips at a glance with our book summary and infographic!

Other Details in the Book to Look Out For

The book was originally published in 2000, and this second edition (published in 2010) expanded on the original book with updated material and ideas for application. This is an easy-to-read parable, with numerous work- and personal examples that are highly-relatable and packed with nuances to reflect the common challenges and scenarios in our work and life.

Reading the book in itself can provide an out-of-the-box environment for us to examine our relationships and effectiveness. For more references and details, do get a copy of the book, visit, or get our Leadership and Self-Deception summary bundle.

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