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Beware the Hubris-Nemesis complex – a concept for leadership analysis

“… introduces the concept of the hubris-nemesis complex .. relatively common, but often unappreciated, and  seen in early 1990’s figures such as Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic


David Ronfeldt
Prepared for the Office of Research and Development, Central Intelligence Agency 

Although originally published in 1994, this CIA-funded research by RAND Social Scientist David Ronfeldt warns of future international crises involving nations or groups with powerful leaders who may may exhibit a special, dangerous mindset resulting from a “hubris-nemesis complex.”

This complex involves a combination of hubris (a pretension toward an arrogant form of godliness) and nemesis (a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary, especially one that can be accused of hubris). The combination has strange dynamics that may lead to destructive, high-risk behavior. Attempts to deter, compel, or negotiate with a leader who has a hubris-nemesis complex can be ineffectual or even disastrously counterproductive when those attempts are based on concepts better suited to dealing with more normal leaders.

This essay introduces and defines the concept of the hubris-nemesis complex, illustrates it by drawing upon both mythic characters and real personalities, relates it to other psychological phenomena that have been described well in the past, and discusses some challenges that may be faced in recognizing and dealing with the complex in the course of international relations. The essay argues that the complex is relatively common, but often unappreciated, and that it could be seen in early 1990’s figures such as Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic — leaders about whom the United States made serious misjudgments over the years.

The full paper can be downloaded here.


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