Tony Blair and George W. Bush at the White House, 2003 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #499

Beware of Hubris Syndrome! A Leadership Personality Disorder

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Key Concept

Researching the medical history of UK prime ministers and US presidents, a member the UK House of Lords and a psychiatrist and researcher from Duke University in the US reveal the symptoms and traits of hubris — a syndrome that befalls many who have substantial power over a length of time.

Idea Summary

Most leaders possess typical leadership qualities such as the ability to inspire and persuade, a grand vision, and a controlled fearlessness when taking risks. There is, however, a darker side to many leaders, manifested in character traits such as extreme pride and overconfidence, coupled with a complete contempt for others. These character traits, which can be summarized by the term ‘hubris’, lead to impulsive and often destructive behaviour.

Hubris is often seen as a natural — or at least not unexpected — extension of the confidence and ambition required of anyone seeking power. While many might consider hubris to be an unfortunate side of leaders, they also believe at least some level of hubris is the price to pay for great leadership.

Lord Owen, a former medical doctor, politcian and British Foreign Secretary from 1977-79, and now a member of the House of Lords and psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson of the Duke University Medical Center offer a different take on hubris, describing it as a ‘syndrome’. As with any syndrome, the hubris syndrome is manifested through a variety of symptoms and is set off by a trigger, which is power. Hubristic traits and the hubris syndrome appear after the acquisition of power.

A sample of the 14 symptoms of hubris syndrome identified by Owen and Davidson include:

  • Using power for self-glorification;
  • An almost obsessive focus on personal image;
  • Excessive self-confidence, accompanied by contempt for advice or criticism of others;
  • Loss of contact with reality;
  • Speaking as a messiah;
  • Reckless and impulsive actions; and
  • Hubristic incompetence where supreme overconfidence leads to inattention to details.

In researching these symptoms, Owen and Davidson noted the overlap with other personality disorders, especially narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Seven of the 14 symptoms are also symptoms of NPD, and 2 symptoms are shared with antisocial personality disorder (APD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). Five of the symptoms — conflating yourself with the organization; using the royal ‘we’; believing that a higher court (perhaps God) will vindicate you; restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness; and a righteousness that ignores practicalities or cost — are unique to the hubris syndrome.

Owen and Davidson investigated the psychological profiles of the UK Prime Ministers and US Presidents in power in the last 100 years for examples of hubristic traits and hubris syndrome. They found seven US presidents who displayed definite hubristic traits: the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. However, the only one of these presidents they identified as displaying hubris syndrome would be Bush (it’s possible, however, the hubris syndrome of Wilson, who suffered from anxiety disorders and other ailments, and of the alcoholic Nixon might have been masked by other illnesses. Among UK prime ministers, seven — Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair displayed hubristic traits, with Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Thatcher and Blair suffering from hubris syndrome.

Business Application

Prime ministers and presidents are convenient sources of study because of the extensive biographical information available. However, hubris syndrome is related to power, and thus any person in positions of substantive power — CEOs of corporations, for example — can suffer from this syndrome.

Hubris syndrome can be related to a number of illnesses, from bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder to alcoholic and drug abuse. Hubristic leaders will deny that they are hubristic, which impedes diagnosis of the problems. However, in the world of business, boards of directors and even managerial peers should remain vigilant about the behaviour and attitudes of CEOs — and even other top executives with centres of power. Related illnesses such as bipolar disorder or alcoholism can be red flags for hubris syndrome.

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