Of pride & vanity - Exploring hubris in leadership
There is a thin line where success morphs into hubris, narcissism and a false sense of confidence
Leaders need to constantly evaluate their operating system with their own internal compass to check their values
As I sip Coffee in Seattle – the coffee capital of the world, the Presidential campaign is at its peak in USA. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee thunders that he will build a great wall on the southern border to prevent immigrants from Mexico entering North America. His opponents and media have branded him arrogant self-promoter and a demagogue leader full of “hubris.” Hubris is defined as a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence that ultimately brings about the nemesis or downfall of the individual. Overall, hubris is associated with the absence of humility and a sense of being “intoxicated by power” (Russell 2011).
Trump is not the lone leader who is full of hubris. Hubris syndrome for political leaders such as Tony Blair and Margret Thatcher were seen widely as profound and self-destructive that their terms were prematurely ended by their own Members of Parliament. Closer home, our former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a classic example of a leader full of hubris.
While in politics these allegations are common, this article tries to explore the cause and effect of hubris in corporate leadership. Hubris is one of the “darker sides” of leadership. And corporate history is rife with examples of leaders losing their jobs and organizations losing market share because of hubristic leadership.
Hubris in leaders
All successful leaders have a certain air of arrogance and a winning formula which made them successful. Having achieved the fame and reputation, it becomes difficult to accept any view which is contrary to one’s own beliefs and values. This syndrome gets amplified with the implicit trust of the promoters/Board or the Street and when they see the stock prices rising.
For example, there is much controversy around the leadership style of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon the most successful and valuable E-commerce enterprise in the world. Even when the company does not deliver profits, Jeff goes out to investors to raise huge debt for expansion!!
Known for his charisma, business prowess and bold innovative ideas, Bezos pursuits are driven by tenacity and urgent sense of mission. However, for employees, working for Bezos is quite a challenge. He is task-oriented, opinionated and has excessively high standards. In his metric driven corporate culture, there is little time for soft talk and conversations quickly move from being challenging to intimidating and even abusive!! This style became so pervasive across the organization that several employees took to social media for redressal of their grievances and complained about the inhuman culture of Amazon till Jeff had to personally give an assurance of making the work environment more conducive.
Similarly there is so much controversy around the styles of Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple and Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft who were known for their hubris. Steve Jobs, known to be a maverick, was the most accomplished CEO who brought Apple back from a near death state in late 1990s. Steve’s no-nonsense style of high task-orientation, making people feel small in their presence and high handed behaviour to achieve their goals was so terrifying that even senior most leaders in their organizations shuddered entering his cabin or participate in meetings freely!! A more recent example is of Vijay Mallya, former CEO of Kingfisher Airlines and liquor baron, known to be an over personified leader whose personal style was largely responsible for bankruptcy of Kingfisher and selling off his liquor business.
Over the years of my career, I have closely observed CEOs, Entrepreneurs and professional managers who have been the sole reason for their own downfall after a successful track record. One such example is of a professional leader who built a successful business from a stage where it was de-growing but over the years became so arrogant that he assumed a larger than life self-image, became an autocratic leader and stopped listening. The hubris was so large that he almost forgot the eco-system around that contributed to his success. Finally, in that state of intoxication, he would humiliate and abuse people, hire subordinates who would be compliant, removed those who had a diverse view point on business or those who dared to challenge his authority and reached a state of ecstasy in his own world of imagination. The business in the meantime started disintegrating till it forced the exit of the leader himself!!
There is a thin line where success morphs into hubris, narcissism and a false sense of confidence. Many successful leaders, at the peak of their careers, are unconscious of this darker side. Research has shown that the shadow side and bright side of a leader’s personality are intimately connected but can drift apart upon taking up a pressurised leadership role. Invariably, it is experienced by those working closely with you. Jack Welch of GE, for example, was well known for his volcanic eruptions. Insiders say that Welch could be heard yelling at his direct reports with the choicest of abuses such that his voice could be heard even outside of soundproof doors.
High emotional self-awareness is a must to recognise one’s own hubris. Guy Claxton of University of Winchester published a research paper in which he stated some classic traits of hubristic leaders1:
- Narcissistic tendency to see the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory
- Predisposition to take actions which project them in good light
- Disproportionate concern on image and presentation
- Messianic manner and tendency to exalt
- Identification of self with the nation, institution or organization
- Exaggerated self- belief bordering on omnipotence
- Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness
- Hiring prototypes in the team who reflect his own personality
- Refusing to hire competent successors
- Refusal to listen to advice/feedback
Recent examples of Hubris amongst corporate honchos came out when the 2G Scam where the Radia tapes exposed how many reputed businessmen were spying on each other to get an unfair advantage to fulfil their greed for wealth.
There is controversy surrounding what causes hubris in leadership. Some research points to this being an acquired personality disorder whereas there is a contrary view by scientists that it is a medical condition. Most commonly it is seen as being persistent through adulthood and with power. Some argue that this syndrome is transient and usually subsides when power disappears. There is a vicious cycle that links CEO compensation, power, success and hubris. CEOs with track record of success are paid obnoxiously high salaries, perquisites and ESOPs which gives them an elevated social status as well as image which they cannot afford to lose.
It is also stated that hubris is an acquired personality disorder. Hayward and Hambrick (1997) identified four sources of CEO hubris2:
- A track record of recent organizational success where success is credited exclusively to CEOs, inflating the CEOs self-belief in their abilities, when in fact it could be attributed reasonably to extraneous factors.
- Media praise and ‘celebrity status’ of a CEO creating a romantic, larger than life and heroic aura of talent and invincibility. Part of this mystique often involves the myth of infallible intuition.
- CEOs systematically inflated views of their own abilities and skills due not to demonstrable accomplishments but to inflated ego to the point of delusions of grandeur.
- Weak board/management vigilance created by the CEOs aura of indispensability until a crisis occurs.
There are also some medical reasons that have been attributed to such a personality development. Owen (2011) speculated on the psychiatric and neurobiological bases of Hubris Syndrome (HS) and noted that HS shares common elements with narcissistic and sociopathic personality disorders (e.g. poor decision making, impulse control and modulation of aggression, and lack of empathy). He also hypothesized that deficiencies of serotonin could be implicated in HS. Finally he noted that dopaminergic receptors facilitate the type of addictive behaviour which may be associated with the “high” that accompanies influence of power and also may underpin tendencies towards grandiosity and associated impairments to risk appraisal and ability to foresee undesirable outcomes. There is also evidence of behavioural effects of testosterone and cortisol on risk taking and rational choice.
Avoiding the hubris trap
The first step towards escaping the hubris trap is to acknowledge hubris early enough. This calls for a high degree of emotional self-awareness. There are psychometric instruments like Hogan which give pointers to the dark side of leadership which normally plays out under pressure. Leaders need to constantly evaluate their operating system with their own internal compass to check their values.
In behavioural sciences, seeing beyond the familiar is not as easy as it may sound because of the deeply intertwined and interdependent relationship between seeing (perception of realty) and being (conception of self). This is often referred to as the “seeing-being” trap. Therefore, cultivating a sense of self-based on a fundamental truth about the limitations of human perception – that none of us ever sees the whole of anything is the starting point. Further examining deep rooted beliefs that “I am right” or “I have the secret formula of success” etc. needs to be consciously examined with the help of a seasoned Coach.
Leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs, by virtue of their position and power often unconsciously get into the hubris trap which is fuelled by their own success and increasing expectations of stakeholders. Given the impact hubristic leadership can have on the organization’s culture and performance, there is a need to understand how and what stage it arises, why some but not all leaders develop it, its correlation with power and how it can be managed better. Thus leaders & CEOs need to develop a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence to avoid the trap. Organizations need to develop an eco-system which helps in diagnosis of the darker side of leaders as early as it becomes evident. While the bad news is that hubris can destroy both the organization and the leader or CEO, the good news is that it can be fixed through active interventions.
- Hubris Syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over 100 years – published in BRAIN 2009: 1396 by David Owen & Jonathan Davidson
- Explaining the premiums paid for large acquisitions: Evidence of CEO hubris – Administrative Science Quarterly 42: 103-127 – Hayward MLA and Hambrick DC (1997)