Hubris Syndrome

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

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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

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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 www.DaedalusTrust.com – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.

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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 DaedalusTrust.com – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.

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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 daedalustrust.com – the website of the academic and research oriented Trust dedicated to raising awareness of this important leadership and governance issue.

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Linguistic biomarkers of Hubris syndrome

Co-authored paper with David Owen published by Elsevier 2013

The phenomenon of exuberant overconfidence (hubris), and subsequent humiliation or destruction (nemesis) of powerful leaders is a familiar one: it is a recurring theme in Ancient Greek tragedy, runs through the Western dramatic canon in depictions of doomed tyrants, and has been played out in the rise and fall of dictators throughout history, right up to the present century. The English language itself reflects the cul- tural impact of the phenomenon in cliche ́ (“power has gone to his head”), proverbs (“pride goes before a fall”), and dicta [“power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts abso- lutely” (Acton, 1887)]. Recent events in Western democratic politics, business and finance have brought wider issues of leadership, and what Bertrand Russell (1961) referred to as ‘the intoxication of power’, under renewed scrutiny…

To read the full paper please click here

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

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Science can help to spot symptoms of executive hubris

Article published in The Financial Times 23 September 2013

How can an investor tell if a bank is heading for danger? In the past five years, analysts have proposed all manner of financial measures. But why not analyse the words of the person running the bank? Researchers have been looking at the speech patterns of leaders such as British politicians and bank chief executives. And this has revealed a point that we instinctively know but often forget: power not only goes to the head, but also to the tongue.

More specifically, when leaders become hubristic, it generates what psychologists call “linguistic biomarkers”. Hubris has long fascinated poets, philosophers and political scientists. Four years ago David Owen, a former British foreign minister who happens also to be a psychiatrist, tried to give the idea a firmer framework by listing 14 markers of hubris. He examined dozens of British and US politicians over the past century and concluded that some leaders (such as the former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) had succumbed to hubris in office. Others (such as John Major) had not…

To read the full article please click here

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

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Power corrupts but it also plays with your mind: Lloyd George, Chamberlain and Thatcher all suffered from ‘hubris syndrome’

Article by Lord Owen published in The Independent 22 September 2013

If we are to prevent disasters such as a re-run of the global financial crisis or an escalation of conflict in the Middle East, the warnings inherent in the tales of Ancient Greece could demonstrate important lessons.

The phenomenon of exuberant overconfidence (hubris) and subsequent humiliation or destruction (nemesis) of powerful leaders has played out throughout history.

Senior figures in politics, finance, business and academia told a conference at the Judge Institute in Cambridge this week that current leaders must become self- aware of hubristic tendencies in themselves, and take active steps to avoid the development of Hubris Syndrome (HS), an acquired personality disorder which unchecked, can result in disastrous decision-making. It tends to remit on leaving office.

HS was first described in 2009 by Lord David Owen, a neurologist and former Foreign Secretary. With US colleague Jonathan Davidson, he described its characteristic pattern of exuberant overconfidence, recklessness and contempt for others, displaying Bertrand Russell’s ‘intoxication of power’..

To read the full article please click here

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

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