Hubris syndrome

In 2009, Lord David Owen, a British parliamentarian who served as foreign secretary published an article, co-authored with Dr. Jonathan Davidson in Brain, “Hubris Syndrome:  An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years.

Hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and minimal constraint on the leader.

Yes, there is a leadership personality disorder. And it is called Hubris Syndrome.

The 14 symptoms of this disorder are:

  • narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  • predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light (i.e., in order to enhance image)
  • disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  • messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation
  • identification with the nation, or organisation to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical
  • tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal “we”
  • excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and content for the advice or criticism of others
  • exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  • a belief rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is History or God
  • An unshakeable belief that in that court they will be vindicated
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  • restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness
  • A tendency to allow their “broad vision”, about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes
  • hubristic incompétence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy

This was an interesting study where Hubris Syndrome was noted with President George W. Bush and observed a history of alcohol-related problems as related illness.  Bush demonstrated hubristic traits.  British prime ministers David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair fitted the criteria for Hubris syndrome.

Interestingly, the “comorbidity of narcissistic personality disorder, and perhaps hubris syndrome, with other personality disorders such as histrionic, borderline and sociopathic disorders presented a real problem…If hubris syndrome, or traits of hubris run in families, this would tend to support the existence of the syndrome, or point to possible comorbidity associations. ”

The paper goes on to pointing out that

Because a political leader intoxicated by power can have devastating effects on many people, there is a particular need to create a climate of opinion that political leaders should be held more accountable for their actions.

Hubris syndrome in politicians is a greater threat than conventional illness to the quality of their leadership and the proper government of our world.

Qualities protective against disproportionate hubris, like humour and cynicism are worth mentioning.  But nothing can replace the need for self-control, the preservation of modesty while in power, the ability to be laughed at, and the ability to listen to those who are in a position to advice.

At a time when we are seeing a rise in the populist rulers, it is a good reflection to step back a bit and consider the merits of the study of Owen and Davidson.  After all, as early as 1964, RE Neustadt has argued that a “governed people’s view of a leader’s effectiveness is typically determined by what is happening to them during the leader’s term of office.”

Hubris syndrome is not something that we see in government alone.  It encompasses even the field of academics or business.  From the whiteboard to the board room.  This personality disorder can afflict everyone who has had a taste of power but has not been able to recognise and manage their hubris well.

The history of madness is the history of power.  Because it imagines power, madness is both impotence and omnipotence.  It requires power to control it.  Threatening the normal structures of authority, insanity is engaged in an endless dialogue – a monomaniacal monologue sometimes – about power.

– Roy Porter, “A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane”, Weidenfield & Nicholson, p. 39, 1987

Aristotle couldn’t have summed up better the outcome of hubris.

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