The danger of runaway leadership

Business woman with letters yelling out from her mouth

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.

The Trust’s work focuses on sponsoring research, holding conferences, publishing books and providing a high-quality academic website resource. Over the past few years we have collaborated with the Royal Society of Medicine, the British Psychological Society, the Cambridge Judge Business School, Ashridge Business School and The Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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 very experience of holding office and acquiring power seems to develop into something that causes such holders to behave in ways which, on the face of it at least, seem symptomatic of a change in personality.

The phenomenon of something happening to a person’s mental stability when in power has been observed for centuries. The causal link between holding power and aberrant behaviour was captured by Bertrand Russell in his reference to ‘the intoxication of power’ and in what Keynes called ‘animal spirits’.

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.

Hubris is not always an easy diagnosis to recognise, for the individual 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.

This article is exclusive to Governance Institute members and subscribers.

To read the full article…

or Become a member