Leaders behaving badly – the problem of hubris

Have you noticed any of the following symptoms, either in yourself or someone you’re working with – a narcissistic propensity to see one’s world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory; excessive confidence in own judgment and contempt for advice; a disproportionate concern with image and presentation; God forbid (no pun or sacrilege intended), a messianic manner?

If one famous figure who’s held a number of high offices is right, these may be the warning signs of not just inappropriate and disruptive behaviour, but a medical condition. If he’s right, how can we protect those who lead us from falling victim?

The proposition that “hubris syndrome” should be recognised as a psychiatric condition is partly the work of Lord Owen, not just former Foreign Secretary, Health minister and SDP leader but also a former doctor who trained in psychiatry. In the introduction to an article for Brain journal, he summarises one dilemma of leadership:

Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadthof vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirationsand bold self-confidence – these qualities are often associatedwith successful leadership. Yet there is another side to thisprofile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity,a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular formof incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequentinattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrousleadership and cause damage on a large scale.”

Written jointly with psychiatrist Jonathan Davies of Duke University Medical Centre, North Carolina, the paper follows on from earlier books Owen has written exploring the psychiatric well being of our political and other leaders. (It’s also attracted the attention of bloggers at places as diverse as the BBC and Blacktriangle, written by a pharmacovigilance pharmacist.)

The potential for hubris is a human quality, of course. Awareness of its danger can turn up in the least likely places: consider the words of Brian Clough for example:

On occasions I have been big-headed. I think most people are when they get in the limelight. I call myself Big Head just to remind myself not to be.”

The novelty of Lord Owen’s argument lies not in the observation that some leaders come to prefer the example of power to the power of example – a CIPD podcast on Leadership from December 2006, for example, touches on the same theme, and Management Today was simultaneously contemplating the same theme (and implicitly discussing it with the CEO of Marks & Spencer) – but that this is a distinct condition, which he primarily attributes to a combination of pressure and isolation:

I have seen the isolation – this extraordinary pressure under which leaders in business or in politics live, with shortages of sleep – a generally very high-pressured existence. Id liken it to … a long-distance runner. You go through a pain threshold and something changes.”

He also illuminates other potential factors – extroverts are more likely to develop hubristic symptoms than introverts, and an absence of what he calls ‘loving restraints’ (a spouse, children, close colleagues) is also a factor. He also perhaps bravely admits his own tendencies, although this might be a pre-emptive strike. But – if this syndrome, which he identifies as a potential problem for business as well as political leaders – is a real danger (and the danger lies in the impact of disastrous decisions it leads its sufferers to make), what is the antidote?

Like any behavioural issue, ensuring you don’t lose sight of self-awareness will always help. 360 feedback tools may be of particular advantage, in giving a ‘whole world’ view of performance and behaviour. Continue to actively pursue your own learning and development, as a reminder that everyone – no matter how powerful or successful – still has something to learn. Remembering that ‘the project’ is a bigger entity than its leader – and retaining the involvement of others – will also help, although the most powerful antidote may be the confidential relationship afforded by executive coaching.

That pride really can become before a fall is an important lesson: the four British Prime Ministers Lord Owen ‘diagnoses’ – Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Thatcher and Blair – were all toppled by backbench pressure. Just because there is no-one above us doesn’t mean those below will continue to obediently follow us.

So how do you stop yourself stepping in the boardroom, unaware you’re modelling the Emperor’s New Clothes?

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