Impact & spread
From Napoleon’s fateful march on Moscow to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global financial crisis that resonates still, Hubris Syndrome could be at the heart of some of history’s most disastrous outcomes.
‘Underneath the radar’, in everyday life, Hubris Syndrome manifests itself in countless other hurtful and damaging ways.
Just consider some of the real-life events we’ve seen recently that increasingly seem to be explained by the concept of Hubris Syndrome:
- CEOs with a mania for expansion vastly overpaying for acquisitions
- Managers investing in overly ambitious projects and facilities
- ‘Invincible’ financial traders making reckless bets with other people’s money
- Messianic politicians ignoring the limits of legality and engaging in costly conflicts.
The proof of the old axiom is plain to see – “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely”. While we need risk takers, the question is what level of risk?
Spread of Hubris SyndromeBack to the top
Hubris Syndrome is common but to what extent we do not yet know. Very few people in their lives have not had some contact in a dangerous and damaging way with a leader whose judgement has been affected by Hubris Syndrome.
While most of the research and thinking to date has focused on high profile individuals in very prominent positions where they can do major damage to many people, the effects of Hubris Syndrome are probably felt in all walks for life – in small and medium sized enterprises, schools, the health system, everywhere.
Ways power corruptsBack to the top
As mentioned, the examples of Hubris Syndrome quoted in most published works focus on the relatively small numbers of leaders at the highest levels. That is because their behaviour is so visible and the consequences affect so many people.
But even in such a tiny segment of the population, examples of narcissism, hubris and potential Hubris Syndrome abound:
- “Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign as UK premier by her own MPs after displaying raw hubris in handling the European Union and bawling in the House of Commons, ‘No, no, no’
- “Tony Blair started to develop Hubris Syndrome over NATO’s bombing of Kosovo in 1999, two years after coming into office. At one stage President Clinton told Blair to ‘pull himself together’ and halt ‘domestic grandstanding’. One of Clinton’s aides mocked the ‘Churchillian tone’ Blair took in displaying excessive pride in his own judgements
- “Amongst US political leaders, Richard Nixon began to behave ever more hubristically in the run up to the 1972 election. His support of the Watergate break tarnished the institution of President and respect for politicians for years
- “George W. Bush developed characteristics of Hubris Syndrome after only a little more than a year in office. His appearance in flying gear on the aircraft carrier with the slogan ‘Mission Accomplished’ emblazoned on the ship control tower behind him, marked the highest point in his scale of hubris.”***
- In Egypt, the military acted to remove Mohammad Morsi as President after they concluded that the hubris he was displaying was even worse than that of his predecessor, Mubarak.
Businesses and groupsBack to the top
In business too, many high profile people associated with disastrous outcomes have been discussed as possibly displaying Hubris Syndrome:
- Among them is Fred Goodwin, head of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) when its collapse and subsequent government bailout helped tip the UK into its deepest economic downturn in seven decades. The economy shrank, bank lending froze, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, living standards are only just recovering and Britons will be paying higher taxes for decades to pay the clean-up bill.
- Another is Dick Fuld whose leadership at Lehman Brothers was at the eye of the 2008 global credit crisis storm.
It’s not just an individual who can be afflicted. Hubris Syndrome can affect groups, too:
- For example, in 2009, British Petroleum (BP) executives appeared to down-play potential risks associated with their Gulf of Mexico oil rig. It is claimed that they assured regulators that it was virtually impossible for a major accident to occur. Months later, it exploded, killing 11 workers and resulting in a massive oil leak that BP shareholders and insurers are still paying for. The evidence is being weighed in an ongoing court case.
Just browse through the resources on this site and you’ll find plenty of examples. Consider your own experience, and you’re bound to find more.
*** Owen D (2006) Hubris and Nemesis in Heads of Government. J R Soc Med 99:548–51