The Hubris Syndrome and how to avoid it


Hail Caesar: Men willingly believe what they wish to be true

I have just finished reading the final novel in Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Dictator takes us through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. It was destroyed by the personal ambition of three men Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and the inadequacy of those who saw themselves as defenders of the Republic: among them, it must be said, Harris’s hero Cicero himself.

As an exercise in the study of failed leadership, Harris’s books are masterful. Enoch Powell, himself a noted classicist (he was a professor of Greek), once noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Powell’s injudicious vision of foaming rivers of blood on the streets of Britain, in a speech on immigration, was itself a reference to ancient Rome. The speech was enough to cut off his ministerial ambitions, midstream, but at an unhappy juncture; and it shaped history’s view of him as a racist. Powell’s political career petered out on the fringes of British politics, as an unhappy adjunct Ulster Unionist MP.

John F Kennedy is the perfect illustration of Powell’s quote. Assassination ensured he will forever be the knight in shining armour at the Court of Camelot – even though we now know more about his many flaws.

Dr David Owen, the self-destructive British politician, knows a thing or two about the pursuit and execution of power. In reflective mood he penned a book on political leadership called The Hubris Syndrome. It was a subject he returned to in March 2015 in a speech at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Speaking of his research with Professor Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, he said: “We saw Hubris Syndrome as including a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory; exaggerated self-belief bordering on a sense of omnipotence, and accountability only to a ‘higher court’ such as history or God.”

Hubris does not only affect statesmen and women. I used to joke that all leaders go mad in the end. This indeed is one of the themes in Harris’s Dictator which charts the growing ‘madness’ of Julius Caesar – a general who declared himself a god.


David Owen: The Hubris Syndrome

In their studies, Owen and Davidson have proved that my quip – based it must be said on experience – has a basis in fact. (For those of you who suspect yourselves or others of suffering from the syndrome, Owen helpfully provides a table of 14 symptoms. There’s a link below. I suspect I suffer from a couple myself, but that is another story.

Owen told the meeting: “Hubris is an occupational hazard for political, military and business leaders. Having focused over the last decade on hubris in politicians today I am more concerned about hubris in business.”

He is right to be worried about business. Businesses are the new nation states – many indeed have wealth greater than sovereign nations. It would be easy enough to list examples of hubristic behaviour by business leaders – Enron, BP, RBS (recently rebranded as a humbled lower case rbs) and more recently Volkswagen, provide rich sources for case studies.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is easy to identify those moments where a different decision or approach might have saved an individual (as in the case of Margaret Thatcher), a corporation in the shape of Fred Goodwin’s RBS, or a great republic such as the Roman one so beloved of Cicero.

I have some sympathy for those who ‘go mad in the end’. Leadership is a lonely place, and such is the environment there that paranoia can flourish. One of Owen’s 14 symptoms is “loss of contact with reality, often associated with progressive isolation”.

I was once involved in the recruitment process for the leader of a large multi-million pound organisation. One of the candidates was rejected during the process on the basis that he was already displaying some of the signs of ‘madness’ of high office. The successful candidate was affable, rooted and a listener. When I heard that, less than a year after assuming office, a lock had been added to the executive suite, I knew the decline had set in.

For the leader, the lock provided the comfort of security. But for the organisation it sent out a completely different message. Even the leader’s closest lieutenants could not get in without assistance. At a stroke credibility was undermined; a potentially glittering career there collapsed in an atmosphere of benign disrespect; and the organisation’s progress was stemmed.

There are ways of minimising the impact of a leader who has become a loose cannon. But corporate governance systems need to be sound, and that is not always the case. There’s much to be said for fixed terms – in business and in government. The limitation on the length of a presidency in the United States is one of the real strengths of its democratic system; though, as Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in Russia, the resourceful ‘despot’ can find ways around fixed terms.

You never quite know how anyone is going to behave until they get into power. Every leader is presented with a unique set of circumstances, and reacts differently. Each is human, and will respond to events in the way humans do – not always properly. But it is not the mistakes that are important, it is how they are dealt with.

Here is my checklist to avoid being affected by the Hubris Syndrome (or at least being able to mitigate its effects).

  1. Surround yourself by people who are better than you, but remember you are the one responsible for making decisions
  2. Never believe your own propaganda – this is the surest road to ruin. Never feel threatened by the truth
  3. Find people you can trust, use them to ‘think aloud’ to, listen to their advice
  4. Don’t be put off making the right decision because of what others might think
  5. Be human: talk to your people, eat in the staff canteen, take public transport
  6. You need your friends more than ever; cling to them like a drowning man clutching a floating plank
  7. Don’t do anything you would not want to see revealed on the front page of a newspaper
  8. Respect those you are accountable to, and those you are responsible for
  9. Recognise that the ends do not always justify the means
  10. Remember – it’s not all about you.
  • Dr David Owen’s speech to the Royal Society of Physicians, and his symptoms’ checklist can be accessed here.