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The perils of power – how hubris can lead to catastrophe

The perils of power – how hubris can lead to catastrophe
History is awash with examples of significant leaders that have suffered from hubris – some with devastating impact. Image: GR Stocks / Unsplash

Hubris, an acquired personality trait which occurs when assuming a position of power, accompanied by overwhelming success, can be a great boost for confidence. But too much of it could be detrimental.

Hubris, and its nefarious counterpart narcissism, originated with the ancient Greeks and have featured throughout mankind’s history in the millennia that followed. In recent times, the prevalence of these conditions has seemingly increased, and the most prominent examples have dire and far-reaching consequences.

Unlike narcissism, which is a lifelong personality disorder, hubris is an acquired personality trait which occurs when assuming a position of power, accompanied by overwhelming success. Extreme hubristic behaviour is considered a syndrome, comprising a combination of symptoms and ignited by power. The syndrome is diluted when the power diminishes.

There are a number of symptoms that accompany hubris syndrome: having a grandiose view of self, a belief that one is always right and knows better, overlooking the facts of the matter at hand, and a general contempt for others and their opinions. This can then be accompanied by impetuous and reckless decision-making, often in the pursuit of self-edification and producing catastrophic results.

And while there are some positive aspects too, such as an increase in confidence, which can in turn lead to increased resilience and ability to persevere in the face of challenges, the overarching aspects of overconfidence, arrogance, pride and contempt for others make it an undesirable and hazardous personality trait.

Narcissism is prevalent in today’s society and seemingly on the increase. Controversial or high-profile leaders with power are also often described as narcissists; many current and historical fallen leaders could be mistakenly described as narcissists, while they were, in fact, sufferers of hubris. 

Recent and earlier history are awash with examples of significant leaders, both in politics and business, that have suffered from hubris – some with devastating impact.

The 2008 global crash has significant examples of leaders suffering from hubris syndrome, like Richard S Fuld, who was the CEO of Lehman Brothers investment bank, whose collapse is seen by many as the cause of the 2008 financial crisis. There is some meaningful argument refuting this position, but The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was a material catalyst in the subsequent market crash.

Fuld’s leadership negatively affected the business in the time just before the crash; he is a textbook example of hubris syndrome. Fuld joined Lehman Brothers full-time in 1969 as a trader under the influence of Lew Glucksman who became the first non-banker to take on the role of CEO in 1983. When Glucksman exited in 1984, just one year after taking on the CEO role and having nearly caused the demise of Lehman, the business was sold to American Express and later spun off as a small bond shop – Fuld was made CEO.

He was an insatiable and ruthless leader who moulded the business into his own image and made it tremendously successful. Power and accomplishments created fertile soil for hubris syndrome. He put the capital into property and soon became a dominant player in the subprime mortgage market as well as commercial real estate.

In 2006, various members of the team saw the signs that real estate was coming off its high and advised Fuld – he ignored their warnings. From there on in, up until the crash, the storyline is a comedy of errors and bad calls made on the view that everything would be alright. These views were being forged almost within a vacuum with little consideration for what was actually happening in the open market. His distorted view of reality – the reality he wanted to believe in – and his initial complacency and belief that should anything go bad, the Fed would bail Lehman out as it did Bear Stearns earlier in the year, were all symptoms of his hubris condition. Frantic efforts to sell off Lehman to a wide array of potential suitors failed and Lehman’s bankruptcy was the largest in history.

Then, there was the Royal Bank of Scotland and its CEO at the time of the crash, Fred Goodwin aka “Fred the Shred”. The demise of RBS started many years before the crash.  

Margaret Thatcher’s banking act of 1979 allowed banks to acquire their competitors. (Thatcher herself was a victim of hubris syndrome which led to her party forcing her to resign in 1990.) Following RBS’s precarious position during the 1991-1992 UK recession, Sir George Mathewson was appointed as CEO; he was an engineer who, although he had no banking experience, was initially very successful. Goodwin was appointed as his right-hand man. 

Fred the Shred’s hunger for power and control was insatiable and many of the hubris syndrome symptoms were already visible in his journey up until the crash; in 2012, he was stripped of the knighthood he had received eight years earlier.

In South Africa, Steinhoff and its CEO Markus Jooste, needs little introduction. His hubris syndrome seemed to be contagious and affected members of his executive and board, including non-execs. 

Hubris syndrome prevails in South Africa’s corporate institutions, often exemplified by indiscriminate corporate bullying in various forms.


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There are many other examples of large multinational organisations where hubris syndrome occurred such as Enron, Theranos, Volkswagen, Parmalat, SAS Airlines and others.

Looking at the political landscape, more examples come up throughout history: George W Bush, Richard Nixon, Neville Chamberlain, Thatcher and Tony Blair. Napoleon was also a victim, exemplified in the Russian invasion. 

The realms of South Africa’s local, regional and central government, evidence suggests that there is a hubris syndrome epidemic: many appointments are made on the basis of cronyism and nepotism, often without merit or having the experience, ethical fibre and character required. The euphoric scent of, and taste for, the varying degrees of power at the different levels of engagement are seductive and addictive. 

No quick fix 

So, what does this mean and where does it leave us?

There is most certainly no overnight fix, but there are a number of things that can be done to address the issue, starting with awareness and the willingness to find solutions.

Importantly, hubris can only be developed in individuals with no prior mental or psychological disorders. This means that it can affect anyone. Creating self-aware leaders who are intrinsically empathetic, outwardly focused, humble and have a spirit of servitude is crucial. Such leaders are inspired by the principle of pursuing greatness in the interests of “we” and not just “me”.

If our intentionality is firmly entrenched on the principle of collectiveness and a greater good, then our internal radar system should detect any potential deviation, particularly if we frequently practise self-reflection and introspection.

From an organisational or institutional perspective, this requires a multifaceted approach extending across the value, leadership, talent and stakeholder chains. It requires a systemic approach with an entrenched and authentic set of unwavering values and principles – if it’s simply about the money and power, it often results in the ends justifying the means. In fact, the means are all important as they define the essence of who we are as individuals and as a collective.

Corporate culture is simply “the way we do things around here”. It starts at the top and cascades downwards across the enterprise. Hiring right is a foundational business imperative that is sadly flawed in so many organisations and is a subject of discussion and debate all on its own. More dynamic, real-time checks and balances should be deployed with hubris in mind.

In the end, it starts with each of us and how we shape and live our lives.

We should develop the habit of asking the following three key questions in any situation: What am I doing to others? What are others doing to me? What am I doing to myself?

When things don’t go the way we planned or fail, instead of seeking to find blame, we should ask ourselves: What did I do to contribute to this outcome? Have I deviated from my values and beliefs in this pursuit? What are the first four steps to resolution?

This is still a world of wonderment, creativity and opportunity to create and celebrate greatness, for and with each other. Let’s live the dream together and not keep pushing Humpty off the wall. DM/ML

Read more from Bryan Hattingh here.

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