Hubris Syndrome

Introduction to the topic of Hubris Syndrome:

In 2011 Lord Owen was instrumental in establishing a charitable trust, the Daedalus Trust ( with the aim of promoting research into personality changes associated with the exercise of power amongst leaders in all walks of life. The name for the Trust was chosen because of Daedalus’s combination of risk taking tempered by wisdom. The Trust aims to raise awareness of this important leadership and governance issue and to support research that studies both the positive and the negative consequences of behavioral risk management while giving precedence to neither. It has held a number of workshops and annual conferences and published books. For more information on the Trust please go to its website:

In 2017 it was decided to embed the Trust in an academic setting and merge with the Maudsley Philosophy Group (MPG) to enable a much younger grouping to become involved in the work of the Trust and for the organization to sit within a broader umbrella group encompassing mainly psychiatrists but also psychologists and neuroscientists. With its link to King’s College it was also hoped the MPG would find it easier to attract grants for research work. Lord Owen stood down as Chairman but one or two of the Trustees provide continuity with the work of the MPG.

The origins of the Trust can be traced back to 2002 when Lord Owen gave a lecture to the Annual Meeting of the Association of British Neurologists and the British Neuropsychiatry Association on “The effect of serious illness on Heads of State or Government”.  This was later published as an Occasional Paper in the QJM (Q J Med 2003; 96:325-336) entitled “Diseased, demented, depressed: serious illness in Heads of State.  In February 2005, as Chancellor of Liverpool University, Lord Owen delivered the Lord Henry Cohen History of Medicine Lecture on “The effect of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s illness on his decision-making during the Suez Crisis”. This too was subsequently published as an Occasional Paper in the QJM (Q J Med 2005 98(6): 387-402). Lord Owen as a neurologist and then a politician has always had a keen interest in the inter-relationship of politics and medicine. He began studying and writing more about illness in heads of government, not only physical and depressive illness but what he perceived as a change in personality as a result of holding high office, or what Bertrand Russell called ‘intoxication of power’ and which Lord Owen has labeled ‘hubris syndrome’.

In November 2006 an article on “Hubris and Nemesis in Heads of Government” was published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (J R Soc Med 2006, 99:548-551). A small paperback called Hubris Syndrome was published in 2007 followed by a much longer book In Sickness and In Power in 2008 which has since been updated and republished in 2016.   Lord Owen has given lectures to the Royal Society of Medicine, the Royal College of Physicians, the Maudsley Grand Round, the Royal College of Psychiatrists Annual Meeting and the Association of British Neurologists covering different aspects from these two books, the texts of which are all available in this section of the website.  An article based on the Samuel Gee Lecture given to the Royal College of Physicians was published in Clinical Medicine in August 2008. A Personal View column “Let us see the medical records of future world leaders” also appeared in the BMJ in November 2008 (BMJ2008;337:a2486).  In 2009 Lord Owen co-authored a paper for BRAIN on “Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder?  A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years”.

The table in this article outlines the proposed criteria for Hubris Syndrome and their correspondence to features of Cluster B personality disorders in DSM-IV.

An independent assessment of Lord Owen’s description of hubris syndrome was written by Professor Gerald Russell, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in The Psychiatrist in 2011.  ThePsychiatrist

In conclusion Professor Russell wrote “Owen has made important contributions to the psychiatry of politicians and others in positions of power, which should be warmly welcomed. The description of the hubris syndrome may require further refinement before entry into the recognised psychiatric classifications.”

In Sickness and In Power has been published in the UK, America, the Netherlands, Greece, Russia, Spain, Portugal and a number of other countries. It has been widely and well reviewed.

It is clear from this high level of activity, and the numerous other medical and literary meetings that have been addressed by Lord Owen that both books have aroused considerable interest, not only in political circles but more specifically in the medical profession. It looks as if the debate on hubris syndrome will continue for some time to come.

More articles and interviews by Lord Owen addressing the subject of hubris syndrome can be found in the following section of the website.  Earlier copies of lectures can be requested by contacting Lord Owen’s office.

(Recent research is indicating) a stress model for hubris syndrome: more research into its linkage to hubris offers a very real opportunity for improving decision-making. Lecture for the Society of British Neurological Surgeons spring 2018 meeting.

Speech by The Rt Hon Lord Owen to the Society of British Neurological Surgeons spring meeting, Torquay, Friday 13 April 2018: The Geoffrey Jefferson Lecture – Neuroscience and Psychology of Hubris Syndrome.

Full text here: Torquay speech

PowerPoint slides here: Torquayslide

View the full video here (you’ll need to register then sign in although there is no charge):

“…(Recent research is indicating) a stress model for hubris syndrome. …A little bit of stress (may be) good, probably improves decision-making, but too much will deplete the system.

“I have no doubt that stress is the factor most commonly found in all people in power. If we can do more research into its linkage to hubris it offers a very real opportunity for improving decision-making.

“Those close to people in power, their wives or husbands or other family members, can go direct to these individuals and urge them to reduce stress. Professional advisers can explain in scientific terms when excessive hours of working, travelling, particularly across time zones, and the exclusion of hobbies, sporting activities and leisure, can do to their decision-making.

“Destressing these individuals’ lives will not be easy but it is achievable.”

Is political hubris an illness?

The New Yorker
Daily Comment, 5 May 2017
Staff writer Evan Osnos


…”Though politicians often accuse each other of being crazy, Trump has inspired a more clinical and sober discussion. (In the magazine this week, I write about proposals in Congress to assess the President’s mental health.) In recent days, the discussion of Trump’s stability has entered a blunter phase….

“In the Washington Post on Thursday, the conservative columnist George Will wrote … “Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion, that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances.”

“…When I asked Lord Owen if Donald Trump meets the threshold of hubris syndrome, he replied that Trump was a hard case, because he reigned over a family business for so long before entering politics. “He has obviously got hubris, but did he acquire it in his business? What was he like when he was twenty? I refuse to put a label on him because I don’t know enough.” Owen added, “Watch him very carefully. It’s a phenomenon that needs to be analyzed, but it will not be very revealing to put labels on it that are inappropriate just because you desperately want to say, ‘He’s crazy.’”

Access the full article hereIs political hubris an illness?

Growing evidence shows that positions of power in politics and business may corrupt the ability of those in them to behave rationally. It’s time for risk managers to take heed.

Article published in the winter 2016 edition of Enterprise Risk, the official magazine of the Institute of Risk Management (UK).

Hubris is almost an occupational hazard for leaders, for it feeds on the isolation that often builds up around (them)….

Hubris is an urgent problem for banking and business leaders, which they show few signs of recognising. Whilst a mass of new regulatory procedures have been put in place, as yet the role and importance of personality change is deliberately underplayed and even ignored.

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

View the PDF here: hubris-and-risk

For online access to the magazine (from late January 2017) visit Enterprise Risk

Hubris Syndrome and Hubris trait: speech to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 20 January 2016.

Introduction: John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of America who helped draft the United States Constitution in A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, published in August 1765, wrote about ‘a general knowledge among the people’, which he believed meant that ‘they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefensible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge. I mean the character and conduct of their leaders.’ If this judgement is true, which I believe it to be, then leaders’ character and conduct must be open to informed comment from physicians and psychiatrists who are not their medical advisers, philosophers, playwrights, psychologists and others necessary for the exercising of that right.

Hubris and narcissism haunt heads of government, military commanders and business leaders. Sigmund Freud invented the term and the idea in his important essay called simply ‘On Narcissism’ (1914). In describing primary and secondary nar­cissism, he said primary narcissism was an instinct ‘a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every living creature’. In 1931 Freud also described narcissism in a very short four-page paper called ‘Libidinal Type’ about the ‘normal’ per­sonality, defining his three normal types as erotic, obsessive and narcissistic. In the 1940s Erich Fromm added a fourth normal personality type, the marketing personality, about people who adapt to the market, a phenomenon first iden­tified and associated with the highly competitive global economy developed in the twentieth century.

Download the full speech here: RoyalCollegePsychiatristsSpeech

Lord Owen discusses the role of “diminished empathy and unbridled intuition” in Hubris Syndrome.

Speech by the Rt Hon Lord Owen to the Latest Advances in Psychiatry Symposium, Royal College Of Physicians, London. Delivered Thursday 12 March, 2015.

“I have become increasingly interested in two interlocking features that seem to be associated with Hubris Syndrome, namely diminished empathy and unbridled intuition.

“Neither are mentioned … (in) the 14 signs and symptoms of Hubris Syndrome which I developed with Professor Jonathan Davidson in our article in Brain in 2009.

“… with the diminished empathy that often accompanies hubris comes an ever-greater reliance on intuition; and with the lack of empathy, that intuition risks becoming unbridled and dangerous.” ….

How can diminished empathy, or unbridled intuition be triggered in the brain of someone who acquires hubris? Is the “learning” or “cementing of expectations” demonstrated in recent experiments an explanation for how Hubris Syndrome appears to stay for months and years in someone who has acquired it?

Full text of Lord Owen’s speech is here: Latest Advances in Psychiatry symposium

For more on Hubris Syndrome, visit – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.

Lord Owen calls for time limits on Prime Ministers’ tenure of office

Prime Ministers should stay in office for no more than ten years or eight years if the Fixed Term Parliament Act is changed from five to four years, according to former Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen. He believes limitation would curb the hubristic behaviour of Prime Ministers who become intoxicated with power. Speaking at a conference on Leadership: Stress & Hubris on 17 November, hosted by the Daedalus Trust and the Division of Occupational Psychology of the British Psychological Society, Lord Owen outlined his Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the House of Lords on 11 November, to provide for a maximum limitation related to the period during which a Prime Minister can hold office of two terms of Parliament under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. For a full copy of the Bill and the Explanatory Notes  please click links below..

Prime Minister (Limitation of Period of Office) Bill

Prime Minister (Limitation of Period of Office) Bill Explanatory Notes

For more on Hubris Syndrome, visit – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.

Hubris Syndrome in leadership is an obstacle to the transformation of organisations

Speech (with video) by Lord Owen at SOL Global Forum, May 2014, Paris

How to curb the hubris or narcissism of leaders, without them losing other essential characteristics of leadership has exercised many minds over the last few centuries. It is not just a subject that fascinated the Greeks. John Adams, one of the famous Founding Fathers of America, who helped draft the Independence Constitution, in A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, written in August 1765, wrote about “a general knowledge among the people” which he believed meant “they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefensible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge. I mean the character and conduct of their leaders”…

To read more and view the video please click here

For more on Hubris Syndrome, visit – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.