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Research Café 2014 overview: Leadership, Democracy and Hubris

On 4 March 2014 the University of Westminster’s Centre for Studies in Democracy and the Daedalus Trust jointly hosted a Research Café. The event was attended by just over 50 people and was designed to discuss the following questions in an open and informal setting:

  • What is the nature of leadership in democracy and in what ways can democracies identify, manage or contain hubristic leaders?
  • Possible cultural, social, organisational and neurological antecedents of hubris
  • In difficult times, nations, businesses and other social institutions require leaders who are confident, assertive and prepared to take risks. What processes might be employed to minimise the potential of such behaviours degenerating into hubris?
  • Are there structures and processes that might “bind, shackle and brake” democratic leaders without inhibiting their ability to give of their best?

Café participants came from a variety of academic disciplines including the political, social and medical sciences, together with people from business, the public sector and the media.

The Café was hosted by the Centre’s Director, Dr Ricardo Blaug, who opened proceedings with the suggestion that conversations might take place within the context of two, overarching questions:

  • What distinguishes non-hubristic from hubristic leadership?
  • In what ways might democracy provide a core function in the restraint of hubris?

In order to set the scene for the Café conversations Lord David Owen, Lord Bikhu Parekh and Sir Bob Reid each offered brief, introductory presentations (see videos).

Lord Owen provided the example of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an example of a leader whose possibly hubristic tendencies were held in check by four, significant “toe holders” – his mentor, Lewis Howe; his wife Eleanor; his aide, Harry Hopkins and his secretary, “Missy”. Each of these significant individuals had the ability to hold an unflinching mirror to the President enabling him accept criticism and even defeat and to move on. Lord Owen also noted the practice of limiting a President’s tenure to a maximum of two consecutive four year terms as a significant counter to leadership hubris – one that he suggested should be considered in relation to Prime Ministers, Company chief executives and other leaders.

Lord Parekh urged caution against the assumption that hubris, as observed on the part of leaders in western, industrialised democracies was necessarily a phenomenon to be observed in all cultures. He recommended consideration of leadership and democratic practices in other, non-western societies in order to see whether and if so, in what ways hubris might manifest itself within them. He cited Mahatma Ghandi’s practice of humility as one example of a leader whose relationship with hubris was worthy of study. He also pointed out that hubris has been observed and recorded in different ways from Plato to Aquinas and a study of classical and historical texts on the issue could prove enlightening.

Finally, Sir Bob Reid made a plea for the study of leaders who appeared to have avoided hubris despite being in positions of great personal power. As an example, he gave General Yakubu Gowon, President of Nigeria during and shortly after the Nigerian Civil War, who left office with dignity saying that it was his he intention to “study government” (which he did at the University of Warwick) and also the late Nelson Mandela.

Lively and intense conversations then took place around six tables during which a wide range of potential topics and areas for research were aired, discussed and proposed. These included:

  • An investigation of personality factors such, as narcissism, and their relationship to/predictor of hubris in leaders
  • A need to consider the role of followers and organisational members in generating the pre-conditions for the emergence of hubristic leaders
  • Studies of the processes employed within non parliamentary democracies to constrain hubris on the part of leaders (eg. party-less democracies such as those in the Channel Islands)
  • Evaluation of the effectiveness of the constraints imposed within professional partnership practices upon power and decision making and their implications for the development of hubristic leadership. Similar studies of co-operative/co-ownership organisations such as the Scott-Bader Commonwealth, Mondragon, Visa and the John Lewis Partnership
  • An examination of the power structures within cultures other than those stemming from the Abrahamic traditions and the presence or absence of hubris on the part of leaders within those traditions
  •  What leadership constraints might be suggested by an analysis of classical texts from Plato, Herodotus, etc. to Thomas Aquinas
  • A comparative analysis of leadership behaviour within institutions where leadership tenure is strictly limited. Are there discernible differences according to the length of time that a leader may hold office?
  • Studies of variability in the incidence of hubris according to the leader’s gender
  • The role of differential levels of organisational trust (internal and external) and the incidence of leadership hubris
  • The further development of existing processes (such as 360° Feedback) as a means to provide a regular behavioural review of a CEO’s leadership health
  • Case studies of levels of effectiveness of mentors, jesters and other “toe holders” in constraining leadership hubris.

In closing the Café, Professor Nick Bouras of the Daedalus Trust reminded participants that the Trust’s invitation to submit research proposals remained open until 15 April 2014. He also drew attention to the next Conference, to be held in partnership with the British Psychological Society and the Royal Society of Medicine, and scheduled for Monday 17 November, 2014.


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