Ex-foreign secretary, Lord Owen, tells conference that condition leads to disastrous decision-making
If we are to understand – and more crucially – prevent disasters such as the global financial crisis or escalation of conflict in the Middle East, we might do worse than turn to the ancient Greeks to learn a thing or two. Three thousand years ago, leaders were humiliated and brought to their knees by hubris, and things have not changed much since.
Britain’s current leaders in both business and politics should be much more aware of their hubristic tendencies, and take steps to avoid the development of hubris syndrome (HS), an acquired personality disorder which, unchecked, can result in disastrous decision-making, a conference at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge was told last week.
British Prime Ministers such as Lloyd George, Chamberlain and Thatcher and US President George W Bush met the clinical diagnosis of HS, first described in 2009 by Lord Owen, the former British foreign secretary, who is a trained neurologist.
With a US colleague, Jonathan Davidson, he described its characteristic pattern of exuberant overconfidence, recklessness and contempt for others. However, those in positions of power in any area of society can be vulnerable to HS, not just politicians.
Lord Owen defined HS as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraints on the leader”.
“Hubris is present in all of us. It’s not inevitable but the pressures are there,” Manfred Kets de Vries, a specialist on leadership, said. “The worry is when people give way to it.”
According to researchers, many people who reach senior positions have done so through well-ordered selection procedures. They appear normal and well balanced but are more likely to develop HS the longer they stay in high-ranking positions.
Like post-traumatic stress disorder, HS has met some resistance from the medical establishment. “The idea of power being a manifestation of psychopathology is new to medicine,” said Gareth Owen of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. “The question of whether it can be prevented, screened or treated is not yet clear. More research is needed in recognising its symptoms if we are to find more effective interventions.”
Nick Bouras of the Daedalus Trust, a charity that promotes the understanding of personality changes associated with power, said: “Leadership gets harder, yet the need for good leaders is greater than ever”.