Leadership: Stress and Hubris


November 24th, 2014

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IMG_0006As promised, I am reporting back after the conference on Leadership: Stress and Hubris at the Royal Society of Medicine. Adrian Furnham identified three pre-requisites to hubristic leadership – certain personality traits (poor personal relationships, inability to deal with change, poor self-image), the environment and followers. So following the conference I have collated a composite of what we can do to reduce the possibility of our high-flying leaders developing hubris syndrome. In his work, Lord Owen has identified fifteen factors associated with Hubris Syndrome. Here are fifteen antidotes to Hubris Syndrome (mostly from the speakers – not me!).

  • Encourage dissent: the ultimate dissenter would be a court jester role or a ‘toe holder’.
  • Andy Haldane at the Bank of England wants ‘counter intuitive thinking’ – both externally and internally – so as to get the feedback to prevent repeated mistakes.
  • Encourage a wider culture of candour as Bennis suggests. Professor Jo Sylvester explained that leaders need to hear ‘an inconvenient truth not a reassuring lie’.
  • Use mentors – but the quality of relationship is essential: King Lear’s fool and court jester only got away with it because of the quality of relationship. For example, is hubris okay if you become aware of your hubris through feedback? This automatically means it is not hubris.
  • Develop core evaluation skills with leaders – what do we mean by this phrase, evaluate what, how, when and why? Sue Binks here at Roffey Park challenged me about this phrase and suggesting swapping ‘monitoring’ for ‘evaluation’.
  • Select out – several speakers at the conference were keen to encourage organisations to have more confidence and expertise in identifying potential personality derailers the Raiders – this can be done by using such tools as the Hogan Darkside or an OCEAN-based instrument. The bottom line is that, when it comes to organisational leadership, too much of a good thing (e.g. confidence) can be bad (e.g. hubris).
  • Often in our training as chartered and occupational psychologists we are encouraged to use biodata as part of our diagnostic process. In my experience the gathering of biodata kind of falls off the edge and is not valued properly. In this case, Adrian Furnham rightly suggest that personality derailers are probably best spotted by those people who have worked with individuals demonstrating those behaviours i.e. their history, their previous employment positions, those closest to them . Therefore organisations need to select out via stringent biodata and reference checks. We need to dig deep; there’s usually some evidence out there to give us some clues.
  • Incorporate the study of Hubris Syndrome in ethical leadership modules and relevant leadership and development programmes. For example, I’m pretty sure that I will be incorporating the work in the Emerging Leaders Programme here at Roffey Park from February 2015.
  • A couple of speakers at the conference encouraged independent reviews of organisational leaders, say every 4 – 5 years. This would be in the vein of a HM Inspection process or Ofsted. The critical factor here is the independent nature of the assessment.
  • On a similar note, organisations were encouraged to manage and oversee their leaders by more than one source; for example, the Chair of the Board and an employee representative body.
  • If we find ourselves working under a leader that has developed Hubris Syndrome – that is a personality change not actually a physical illness – then we need to go into the realms of challenge. The received wisdom seemed to be that we would need to do this as followers in groups, with minuted meetings and a public electronic paper trail. Hubristic leaders do not like to be held accountable.
  • Following on from this, key decision-making processes need checking not least of all with alternative perspectives. The Cuban Missile Crisis has provided many academics with a fascinating critical incident to explore team working, leadership, diversity and decision-making. The bottom line is such decision making should not be autonomous.
  • One way of checking our leaders is to set them more specified goals to reduce autonomous strategic and independent action. Basically, performance management.
  • And I’m pleased to say that here at Roffey Park we got a vicarious warning about our own approach to leadership development and the creation of a fallacy of elite leaders. John Snow from Channel 4 News was keen to support the criticism that government organisations, the media, business schools and leadership institutes like Roffey Park must stop creating the myth of the superhuman leader through focusing on individual exemplars and theoretical models such as servant leadership, authentic leaders, my model of The Humble Manager or Collin’s level 5 leaders. We put such people and qualities on a pedestal and create the impression that they are the answer – human beings are more complicated that.
  • The last antidote occurred as I came away from the conference; I had a feeling that I personally want to support the Daedalus Trust – whatever the motivation behind it, it can ultimate help at least too dilute hubris if not world wars.