Today’s dynamic global economy has us facing a challenging task of steering our organisations towards success.
The stress from rising competition and regulation, resource management, revenue generation, and customer retention only shows that we have the toughest jobs in the market.
Still, so many leaders and top-performing CEOs rise above and beyond, getting their businesses to scale through their vision, charm, persuasiveness, and willingness to take risks. They deliver on these qualities to get the company moving forward.
But there is a dark side to being a leader that many may start to see as we continue to hold on to a seat of power.
As leaders who’ve had massive success and prestige saddled up to them for long periods of time rise to power, they often fall prey to hubris [hyoo-bris] or excessive pride and overconfidence.
Hubris syndrome in leaders can be seen in many forms. They blame others when things go wrong, they micromanage their staff thinking no one else can do the job better than them, they discount feedback and take offence when someone disagrees, and they disregard company values and rules thinking it doesn’t apply to them.
These behaviours can be particularly destructive especially among the C-suites, whose power and position can lead them to make reckless decisions that can impact the entire organisation.
Hubristic leaders also have a tendency to demoralise and disempower their teams, which may lead to disengagement and their best employees leaving. Not getting hubris in check can be destructive on careers and the company’s overall growth.
What Is the Hubris Syndrome?
Hubris syndrome is derived from the Greek word hybris, which means excessive pride and defiance of the gods in Greek tragedy. Often triggered by the acquisition of power, hubris is attributed to the fallen Greek heroes, Oedipus and Achilles, whose pride and self-glorification eventually led to their own downfall.
Leaders with the hubris syndrome exhibit recklessness, inattention to detail, and loss of contact with reality — these often lead to distorted, impulsive, and very bad decisions.
This often stems from overconfidence and choosing to ignore data or counsel from partners. It is usually acquired when we hold a high position for a long period without interference.
In 2013, Cambridge made a study on Fortune 500 CEOs and the role of overconfidence in making international mergers and acquisitions over a six-year period.
They found that hubristic CEOs made risky decisions where they were seen offering cash instead of stock to finance various mergers and acquisitions with companies outside their core line of business.
Hubristic leaders’ overconfidence and reluctance to consult with their team resulted in poor business strategy and bad mergers that led to significant losses. [Click to Tweet]
The upside to all this is that hubris is not a personality disorder. It’s an acquired trait, which means it can still be addressed or changed.
Warning Signs of Hubris
Most business leaders who exhibit hubristic behaviour have idealistic goals in mind and have well-meaning intentions for the company.
But no matter how much we want our businesses to scale, we need to realise that we cannot hoist ourselves up to any position of value without the help of our teams.
Whether you are an executive in your company, a high-performing team member, or a manager, you need to watch out for signs of hubris in yourself and your team to promote a healthier work culture. [Click to Tweet]
Arrogance is insecurity dressed up in a flash leather jacket. So read on because you or your leadership team may already be displaying these behaviours and not know it.
Here are three warning signs to watch out for:
1. Are you making big decisions independently?
The most glaring sign of hubris in leaders is overconfidence in their own judgement. They refuse to listen to advice and rashly make big decisions without first speaking to their team.
Take a step back and think about how your decisions impact not just you but the entire team. Remember, it’s not all about you. Every great leader knows that they don’t know everything. They acknowledge what they don’t know and seek counsel from those who do.
Therefore, take the time to consider input from partners, other board members, or your subordinates and learn to look at things from their perspective as well. You might be surprised how the bigger picture looks like from a different vantage point.
2. In times of pressure, are you blaming others and not taking accountability? When bad things happen, are you quick to ask who is responsible?
We know that no matter how much we prepare for the worse, things don’t always go as planned. Effective leaders always focus on opportunities instead of zeroing in on the problem.
Hubristic leaders, on the other hand, are quick to point out the blame on whoever is responsible. When hubris is in charge, we take too much credit for luck and we blame too much when things go bad.
The net result? We’re not learning, and over time we take bigger and bigger risks.
Take the time to consider this: we are not in it just for us, we play a big role in our team too.
Any misses from our team reflects back to us. Not taking accountability and even overemphasising on accountability can lead to missed opportunities for better problem-solving and helping our team grow and become more resilient to these challenges in the future.
3. Do you have a team who always agrees with you? If your team never contradicts you and your ideas, you may have already set up a no-bad-news culture.
Many may think it great to have a ‘Yes’ team that always agrees with everything you say and do, but this is damaging to a work environment where ideas should flow freely and employees can speak their mind.
Hubris can be seen in leaders who strictly enforce a no-bad-news culture, and this should not be the case at all.
Just remember that the highest-paid person’s opinions are worth less than we think — especially in a complex and rapidly changing world. (NB: For not a getting contradiction. This is how the Bay of Pigs disaster happened when advisors didn’t think they could disagree with Kennedy. )
Healthy work environments encourage openness where leaders listen to what their team members have to say and where they can learn from ideas even if it may contradict their own.
3 Steps to Overcome the Hubris Syndrome
Now that we’ve outlined the signs to watch out for in ourselves and our teams, the next challenge is to learn how to overcome them.
1. Encourage transparency and constructive feedback
It is critical for any company to have a clear vision and to know its goals from the get-go. This way we can easily align ourselves with team members on what it is we want to achieve.
On top of goal-setting and timely performance reviews, it is good to ask the team for feedback on what we can do to improve and what we need to stop doing.
Through an atmosphere where constructive criticism is accepted, we become more self-aware and are on our way to addressing areas where many see has the best potential for growth.
Some organisations give voices to their employees and promote an environment where they are given the medium to reach out to top-level management. They can write letters to their CEOs where they can talk about their organisation’s pain points and give feedback on their management style.
2. Promote an anti-hubris culture that encourages openness and humility
Encourage the team to respect diversity and the opinion of others. By all means, welcome disagreement when done constructively and voice out your organisation’s openness to new ideas to all your employees so they know that their voice matters too.
To promote an open workspace, create an environment where everyone is encouraged to take risks and learn from prior mistakes.
Embracing risks instead of fear ensures your team is never afraid to present new ideas or discuss opportunities for growth.
3. Promote diversity in the boardroom
While it may seem logical to have like-minded individuals in the Board to give their full support to the CEO, this is actually counterproductive to Board independence and may promote hubris.
More than the calibre of the individuals in the Board or the executive team, it is board diversity coming from leaders of different roles, genders, and viewpoints that help put hubris in check and ensure the voice of everyone in the organisation is accurately represented.
More importantly, having different perspectives that weigh in on potential implications of proposed policies and strategies make for a more efficient decision-making and risk-assessment process.
Wrapping It Up
Self-confidence in leaders is crucial to inspire and lead a highly talented team. But overconfidence, disregarding feedback, and not permitting constructive dissent are recipes that make for distorted decision-making.
As we welcome the new year, it’s time for leaders to inspire and start an anti-hubris culture — one that encourages transparency, constructive feedback, openness, humility, and diversity.
Ashton Bishop is Australia’s first Predatory Marketer and the CEO of Step Change — an expert in pinpointing how businesses can grow by outsmarting their competitors. His niche is in strategy, where he has spent the last 14 years working internationally on some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s a business owner and serial entrepreneur — challenging, sometimes even controversial — but always focused on what gets results.