How hubristic are your leaders?

By Ruth Stuart, Learning and Development Research Adviser – CIPD, Ruth on Twitter 

I recently attended a one-day conference, Leadership: Stress and hubris, hosted by The Royal Society of Medicine and the Daedalus Trust (a charity focused on raising awareness of hubris and Hubris Syndrome in public and business life). The conference provided a really interesting multi-disciplinary approach to hubris, with a mixed speaker panel and audience of medical professionals, psychologists, academics and HR practitioners. There were some fantastic speakers and a great range of perspectives shared from these different communities. The conference made it clear that hubris matters; particularly in the business world.

So what is hubris?
Hubris is often associated with Icarus, who ignored the advice of his father Daedalus and flew too close to the sun, falling to his peril as the wax in his wings melted. But what does it mean in a business context? And how does it differ from charismatic leadership? The conference highlighted the following key characteristics of hubristic leaders:

  •  Extreme sense of self importance
  •  Use of the royal ‘we’ when referring to personal decisions
  •  Unshakeable confidence in own judgement
  •  Pre-occupation with image
  •  Inability to listen to others
  •  Unshakeable belief that history or god will be their judge
  •  Inattention to detail
  •  Displays of impulsiveness and willingness to take risks
  •  Tendency to focus on their ‘vision’ at the expense of practicality or cost
  •  Moral righteousness

The dark side of hubris
While hubris is often associated with charismatic, visionary leaders, it often has a dark side. Hubristic leaders can cause damage to their business and to those around them, as decisions are made which are designed to (sometimes unconsciously) increase personal power, rather than for the good of the organisation. Hubris can also be self-perpetuating, as the hubristic leader becomes less willing to listen to voices of dissent, those voices typically eventually disappear, leaving behind a subservient cloud. The consequences of hubristic leadership can be so damaging, that Hubris Syndrome has been classified as an acquired personality disorder. The condition typically develops when power has been held for a period of time, and then can get progressively worse, but may dissipate when power fades.

Avoiding hubris
With this in mind how do you create a healthy leadership culture in which self-assurance is encouraged but hubris avoided? One suggestion is that in order to avoid hubris, leadership should have a fixed tenure or include an element of role rotation. However, hubris is not necessarily time-bound in this way, and there can be practical challenges with this type of approach. Perhaps then at least part of the solution lies in effective HR and L&D practice. Having the foresight to spot the early warning signs of hubris and then ‘hold the mirror up’ provides a vital check and balance for leaders. Playing this role requires perseverance, resilience, and courage – alongside the objectivity to identify just how hubristic your leaders really are.

You can find out more about the Daedalus Trust  here and read our 2013 research on Real-life leaders here.

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  • Anonymous

    This sort of leaders have always permeated our societies since the beginning of times.  Abusive leaders are the result of greed, capitalism and centralized banking sifting all the way through to the smallest living business amoebae as they are most likely considered by our Financial World Elite.  

    National Socialism —and we all know what that means, has been replaced by Neo-Conservatism (which is a classic case of a political euphemism). Neo-Conservatism is exactly what it means: National Socialism.  

    In this tapestry of power abuse, whereby companies leaders have to bring in more profit and gain than ever, how can any company CEO combine the dichotomy of a “decentralized company wirearchy” while at the same time hierarchically having to bring in un-sustainable quarterly earnings for the Share-Holders? How is he/she supposed to “square” that circle?

  • Anonymous

    A couple of thoughts:

    All organisations need to take risks, therefore the bullet point above should read "willingness to take UNMANAGED risks"

    Inattention to detail - I feel excessive attention to detail in leaders can be just as damaging.  Strategic thinkers should be thinking about the big picture, so maybe that should be "inappropriate attention to detail for the level of management".