Must Power Corrupt? The Hubris Syndrome

The hubris syndrome has been defined as “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”[i] From a longer list, reproduced here are four symptoms that I have frequently observed in such leaders:

  • A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal “we”
  • 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
  • A tendency for the individual to regard his/her interests as identical to the nation or organisation
  • A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they will answer to is History or God, and in which they will be vindicated.

I am sure the readers can recall leaders they have experienced or observed in the political domain who suffered hubris by the end of their careers. As this syndrome tends to creep gently on the individual over time, I used to observe while teaching that “all CEOs have a sell by date”. At some stage, successful people stop listening to advice and paying the needed attention to the cues in the environment, especially as the environment changes. And the longer one is in a position of power, the more likely that changes in the industry, technology, and societal expectations have altered the rules of the game. Strategies that may have been successful earlier in one’s career may not be effective, or even relevant, anymore.

While working in the corporate environment, I was very sensitive to signs of hubris, and more generally to how Cyrus behaved as a leader. Cyrus tended to encourage open debate and had a genuine interest in the opinions of others, including subordinates. But it was interesting to observe how people interacted with him. The CEOs who had preceded him in the group were far less deferential than those whom he had helped hire after becoming Chairman. The implicit power differential was larger with the latter group. One manifestation of this could be observed by those who called him Cyrus versus Chairman in meetings.

I often wondered, it will be interesting to see if Cyrus behaves similarly after ten years in his position as Chairman. By then, all the CEOs will have been hired during his tenure. Furthermore, in his early years, he had to listen carefully to all opinions as he was trying to understand the vast group that he had been placed in charge of. Over the years, he would learn more and more about the different businesses and what makes them tick. Then would he still have patience and the humility to listen to and seek discordant voices? Unfortunately, we did not last long enough for me to assess this. But my point is that it is hard for leaders in powerful positions to stay balanced.

There is some evidence that suggests that if one has experienced the transient nature of power, then one is likely to be less vulnerable to the negative effects of holding power. I know this is not always practical, but, one criteria for hiring people into powerful positions is whether they have experienced the loss of power previously.  Alternatively, it’s good if one is surrounded by, or has a few trusted advisors or colleagues who do not hesitate to disagree and share the unvarnished truth. Is there someone whispering the truth in the ear of the leader?

The problem is that it is lonely at the top. Everyone is potentially a beneficiary, which makes it difficult for powerful leaders to trust others. Genuine friends become fewer, sycophancy becomes ubiquitous, and this isolation and disconnect from reality can encourage the path to hubris.

[i] David Owen and Jonathan Davidson (2009), Hubris Syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US presidents and UK prime ministers over the last 100 years,” Brain, p.2 for the definition and p.3 for the items which have been adapted here.



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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kalpesh says:

    Dada – where is the review for WHEN HARRY MET SEJAL?

    Looking forward to it


  2. Sir, is there a relation of ‘Narcissism’ in the above context? Not, clinically diagnosable Narcissism but, other forms like ‘Closet Narcissism’ or ‘Secret Narcissism’.


  3. slshlibrary says:

    Of late, hubris has become the norm? Is it Social Media…or is it me?


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