• Print

Is Hubris Syndrome Causing Our Government And Leadership Epic Failures?

Thursday 3 June, 2021
What do people say about your leadership when you're not listening? Would their assessment agree with yours? Perhaps it's a good idea to seek feedback. Honest feedback will help you keep your feet on the ground and defend you against hubris syndrome.

What is hubris syndrome?

Hubris syndrome is a condition that develops in people of power. The longer they hold power, the more damaging the condition becomes. In 2009, neuroscientist David Owen, described the syndrome as an "acquired personality disorder". His published research, based on studies of famous politicians, showed how power directly impacts the way our mind works. He found that over time, politicians with high levels of power began to operate independently of others, seeking no counsel and following no guidelines.

Owen said, "…it is becoming ever clearer that hubris syndrome is a greater threat than conventional illness to the quality of leadership".Why good leadership matters to all of us

Hubris changes the brain

Recently, researchers found that power makes physiological changes in the brain. It rewires and closes certain neural pathways. With those pathways shut down, the leader cannot always choose the best action or make the best decisions.

An article in The Atlantic describes the effect of hubris, saying, "Subjects under the influence of power... acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury-becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people's point of view".

Hubris syndrome affects the way a person of power interacts with others. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, found power corrupts wiring related to empathy. People have a reduced ability to spot typical social and interpersonal cues, so they are less able and willing to respond.

Hubris removes the stop signs

Historian Margaret MacMillan accurately says, "Hubris is interesting, because you get people who are often very clever, very powerful, have achieved great things, and then something goes wrong - they just don't know when to stop".

The problem with hubris is that neither the person with power nor their team knows when to stop. The person gained power through talent and ability, performing so well that the promotion was justified. At some stage, though, when the power goes to the head, he or she begins to feel invincible. For those who follow or work with that person, the realisation that ego has taken over comes slowly and hurtfully.

People with hubris don't know it. They feel supremely overconfident and need no advice from others. They think they know best and may make rash decisions and unwise choices. Inevitably, their mistakes catch up with them. It's only when they can't escape the consequences that they realise what they've done.

Hubris is a leadership and business disaster

Hubris hurts people and business, with around 53% of business leaders blaming uncontrollable egos for a decrease in their annual revenues of up to 15%. Some of that loss is due to the mistakes which eventually catch leaders out. A lot more is probably due to the damaging leadership style which hubris imposes.

We know hubris interferes with the ability to relate to people. People don't matter like they used to because the leader can't read their emotions. They can't see confusion, fear, worry. In turn, this affects the way the leader communicates, moving from consultative to directive. The leader may micromanage, leaving their teams to feel undervalued and untrusted. There's no opportunity to be creative or innovative, and no opportunity to contribute to anything worthwhile. It's a demoralising relationship to work in, and inevitably the business loses its best talent.

Hubris syndrome shuts down natural human leadership skills and pushes the team and the business to their limits.

Owen's research noted there are levels of hubris syndrome; you can think of this as a sliding scale or spectrum; some individuals have traits and not the full-scale syndrome.    

For example, Owen's study of UK prime ministers for hubristic traits and hubris syndrome found Herbert Asquith, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden displayed hubristic characteristics, with David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair suffering from hubris syndrome. 

Do you have hubris syndrome?

If you have the syndrome, you won't be aware of it until it's too late to correct. You can't afford to put yourself, your team, or your leadership career at risk by operating in ignorance.

Owen suggests you "retain a personal modesty, remain open to criticism, have a degree of cynicism or well-developed sense of humour". Seeking honest and regular feedback will also help keep your eyes wide open. 

There's a clear line between confidence and overconfidence. It's up to you to find it and stay on the right side. Are you as good as you think you are? I hope so.

Author Credits

Caroline Kennedy, author of Lead Beyond 2030: The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact, is an accomplished, award-winning CEO and global thought leader on business and leadership. She is a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives. A respected keynote speaker and author, Caroline’s methods are neuroscience based to achieve rapid development and growth. For more information on Caroline’s work visit www.carolinekennedy.com.au

  • Print