The danger of runaway leadership

Hubristic individuals are a threat to governance in all organisations. For all the money and time business spends on risk management, building complex models and using quantitative statistical methods, it needs to devote at least as much money and effort to biological, chemical and human resources research on personality and behaviour.

In 2011, I helped to establish the Daedalus Trust charity to raise public awareness of the dangers of personality change associated with the exercise of power, whether individual hubris or collective hubris, in all walks of life and the problems it presents in terms of its effect on decision-making.

Feeds on isolation

Hubris is an occupational hazard for leaders in all fields, such as politics, the military and business, for it feeds on the isolation that often builds up around such leaders. The phenomenon of something happening to a person’s mental stability when in power has been observed for centuries.

I have explored the hypothesis that there is a pattern of hubristic behaviour manifest in some leaders that could legitimately be deemed to constitute a syndrome, where signs and symptoms are more often seen together than separately. I have called this Hubris Syndrome.

Defining symptoms

Hubris is not always an easy diagnosis to recognise as individuals affected can appear completely normal in their social life. Even those in close contact with their decision-making may not pick up, in the early stages, a change of behaviour.

Some psychiatrists believe that hubristic behaviour is systemic, a product of the environment in which the leader operates. On the other hand, this hubristic build-up gives the impression that it has become self-generating, that an individual is gripped by something which is no longer driven by outside factors, but comes from within that individual. It is this element that comprises hubris syndrome.

In an article in Brain in 2009, ‘Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?’ Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, and I drew attention to the neurobiology of Hubris Syndrome. In making the diagnosis of Hubris Syndrome we suggested that three of the fourteen defining symptoms should be present, of which at least one must be among the five components identified as unique. Click here to access the 14 defining symptoms of Hubris Syndrome.

Sense of invulnerability

All too frequently, hubris — this dangerous mix of pride, ego, delusion, resistance to criticism, and, in the case of a company or institution, groupthink — can create a culture capable of just about any mistake in the name of ‘we know best’. Given the impact that people in the throes of hubris have on other people’s lives, it is important to understand what hubris is all about.

In fact, as recently as May 2016, Andrew Bailey, before becoming head of the Financial Conduct Authority, spoke of the need for improving the culture of City firms and that ‘hubris’ should be added to the list of risks firms face.

Non-executives lack control

A survey of 375 company chairs and non-executive directors in the UK revealed that a quarter of non-executives said they were unsure they could control chairs and CEOs and a further 10 per cent said they knew they could not. Shareholders and the wider public cannot, therefore, rely on non-executives unless there are significant changes in the balance of power within the company.

For 20 years I was a businessman, sitting on four boards of international public companies. The best mechanism is that after five years any public company board should automatically have to consider the record of the chief executive. That assessment must be a process which is not entirely internal and guidance must stipulate that a measure of external assessment be introduced.

If you make no exceptions and that assessment is automatically scheduled, then it does not raise much ‘angst’ or trigger unrest within the company.

Leadership boundaries

We need to be far better at putting up boundaries against runaway leadership, improving selection, education, and evaluation by board members, and offering coaching and counselling to executives showing signs of hubris.

There is also an important role to be played by a mentor or trusted adviser — different from that of a coach.

Identifying hubristic leaders and hubristic cultures and containing them presents an immense challenge. It is in all our interests that we develop informal systems of peer review if we are to prevent the making of damaging decisions.

Two of the Daedalus Trust’s advisory group members, Professor Eugene Sadler-Smith and Graham Robinson, based at the Surrey Business School are actively working on ‘The Hubris Project’ in collaboration with a wider network of senior practitioners producing proposals for three ‘tools’ for the management and mitigation of hubris in business organisations.

They are the first tentative steps in developing an ‘Anti-Hubris Toolkit’. They comprise the tools of ‘empowering the board’, ‘listening to faint signals’ and ‘de-isolating and grounding the CEO’. More information about this can be found on the Daedalus Trust’s website.

Members and subscribers can read my complete article which appeared in the July issue of Governance Directions. Originally published in the May issue of Governance and Compliance magazine

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