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Hubris Syndrome and organisational leadership

On 18 November the Royal School of Medicine, the Daedalus Trust and the British Psychological Society will meet with a collection of professionals to explore Hubris Syndrome, Stress and Leadership – the intoxication of power. I am lucky enough to be attending. Whilst the field to date is very interested in the effect on politicians and national leaders, there appears to be clear application to organisational leaders. In November’s publication of The Psychologist, David Owen (the doctor and politician) also shines a bright light on this complex condition with medical and neurological symptoms along with behavioural symptoms that we might see in such a leader.

What interests me is that research into Hubris Syndrome has identified five unique behavioural symptoms that separate it from other familiar conditions such as the psychopathy evident in Narcissistic Personality Disorder and other conditions brought to light in the highly successful book, Snakes in Suits; when psychopaths go to work.

It is these five unique symptoms that may give us a clue into what we need to look out for in our leaders to prevent them from crossing the line from charismatic leaders into hubristic behaviours. For example, ‘conflation of self’ with the organisation can be evident in the leader who identifies themselves as the organisation and this would be evident in a second unique symptom whereby the CEO uses the royal ‘we’ when they speak about their personal decisions for the company. For me the scariest unique behavioural symptom of hubristic syndrome is evident in a leader’s unshakable belief that history or God will prove them to be right. The remaining two symptoms include displays of impulsiveness and a moral righteousness that ignores counter opinion, feedback and resource cost. For me these behaviours are best summed up when we work with organisations whereby the CEO is the founder and great individual behind this successful endeavour and then becomes the reason why that very successful endeavour goes into decline. There is a tipping point here and leadership studies might do well to explore and identify that invisible line through the research into Hubris Syndrome and leadership (I do have a caveat that I need to be able to sift any political point scoring in the research into national leaders, though).

There is an argument that governance structures and due diligence processes should have explicit risk management checks in-built to scrutinize leadership decision making – to stop a leader crossing the line from transformational effectiveness to hubristic disaster, possibly two opposing ends of a leadership continuum. But challenging and supporting a charismatic leader exposed to these dangers may be difficult – they are not there to be insipid. Taming such leaders appears contradictory in one sense, but not taming them is highly risky in another.

Therefore the spotlight must fall onto how we are developing new leaders to avoid such personality pitfalls in the future. It seems to me that the necessary antidotes to these five hubristic behaviours are developing humility in leaders as a prerequisite to core self-evaluation and finding suitable mentors to support these new leaders. Such mentors can help to help facilitate this deep self-awareness of skills, motivation, ethics, responsibility and human fallibility in our corporate leaders. Arguably you cannot do this on your own.

The speakers at the forthcoming conference include The Rt Hon Lord David Owen (an unsung neuro-researcher), Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England (behavioural economics), Professor Adrian Furnham (leadership derailment) and John Coates (workplace stress). The journalist Jon Snow speaking on the role of the media in encouraging charismatic leadership (any CEO of a FTSE 100 company is now fair game for media analysis). I will report back.

Further reading

The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power (Owen, 2007)

Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government over the Last 100 years (Owen, 2011)

Snakes in Suits: when psychopaths go to work (Babiak and Hare, 2006).

Cambridge Judge Business School

The Daedalus Trust

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