Hubris Syndrome

Announcement: Lord Owen: the issue of Hubris Syndrome

In 2002 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”. read more…..

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

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


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

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

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

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

Hubris Syndrome- Lord Owen Speaks to the IOP Students

Lecture by Lord Owen to the IOP Students, 17 June 2013

Students from the Mental Health Studies Programme at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s were given a fascinating insight into the dark world of the Hubris Syndrome in a lecture presented by Lord David Owen.

In his talk, Lord Owen described the ‘Hubris Syndrome’ – how the intoxication of power takes hold and turns many leaders into tyrants who are no longer able or willing to listen to the advice from intelligent and respected sources.  Consequently, for those suffering from the syndrome, once the glory and success has gone to their heads, it affects every action they take – a trajectory which can lead to devastating consequences.

To read the full write up please click here