Hubris Syndrome – the self-deception that curses leaders and eats away at organisations like a cancer

Hubris Syndrome blinds people in positions of power to the value of other perspectives. It is a self-deception that not only curses its victims but also eats away at organisations like a cancer.

Hubris Syndrome - Owen book‘Hubris Syndrome’ is a term coined by former UK Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen and Duke University psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson.

It affects people in positions of power, who thereby become blind to the value of the different perspectives of others.

In 2010, my fellow Directors in the UK Society for Organisational Learning (SoL UK) and I joined with Lord Owen to set up The Daedalus Trust, a UK registered charity established to promote research into the personality changes associated with the exercise of power.

Alongside the research sponsored by the Trust, 25 years of organisational learning (OL) practice provides valuable, actionable insights into Hubris Syndrome.

In particular, OL experience shows that all human systems, communities and organisations are ultimately enabled or constrained by the mindsets, attitudes and outlooks of the people involved.

Why does Hubris Syndrome matter?

In our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, organisations only thrive when they can see beyond the familiar.

Seeing beyond the familiar turns out to not be as easy as it sounds. The reason for this is that our ‘seeing’ (perception of reality) is fundamentally dependent on our ‘being’ (sense of self). So, when we get trapped in a particular way of being, we become trapped in corresponding ways of seeing.

Hubris Syndrome results from the seeing-being trap that “I alone am right”. This self-deception is not only a curse for its victims, it eats away at organisations like a cancer. People become “prisoners in the fortress of past success”, stopping them from grasping future opportunities.

Escaping the seeing-being traps that cause Hubris Syndrome

So what can we do to escape the seeing-being traps that cause Hubris Syndrome? Mastery of six character traits provides the resourcefulness and resilience to escape these traps in ourselves and others:

  • Empathic – being in touch with the emotional force that others experience due to their point of view;
  • Systemic – seeing the bigger picture of how different individual ‘conceptions of self’ collectively create ‘organisational reality’;
  • Curious – regarding different opinions not as threats, but opportunities to enrich understanding;Hubris Syndrome - Escape
  • Agnostic – avoiding dependence on one way of seeing things, even if it has served you well in the past;
  • Pragmatic – experimenting and scaling up what works, and as a result avoiding the analysis paralysis ‘perfection before action’ trap;
  • Enthusiastic – discovering and bringing into your actions and interactions your own authentic inner strengths.

These ESCAPE traits are not ‘tricks’ or even ‘techniques’. They comprise the ‘state of being’ necessary to master the art and practice of escaping seeing-being traps.

If practising six things seems too daunting, a good place to start is by cultivating the traits of being enthusiastic and being curious. Cultivating these directly develops the combination of professional will and personal humility that Jim Collins describes in his bestseller “Good to Great” as the key to ‘Level 5 Leadership’.

You can find out more about seeing-being traps and how to escape them in my senior executive’s 20-minute guide to eliminating braking friction. You can get free access to this here.

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