Hubris Syndrome is like cancer to innovation and agility

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 innovation and agility like a cancer.

‘Hubris Syndrome’ is a term coined by former UK Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen and Duke University psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson. In their view, someone in a position of power suffers from Hubris Syndrome when they exhibit three or four of the following symptoms:

  1. Seeking self-glorification;
  2. Acting to enhance personal standing;
  3. Excessively conscious of their own image;
  4. Displaying messianic tendencies;
  5. Believing “I am the organisation”;
  6. Using the royal “we”;
  7. Excessive confidence in their own judgements and contemptuous of others’ opinions;
  8. Displaying exaggerated self-belief;
  9. Feeling they’re accountable only to history;
  10. Believing unshakably that they will be vindicated;
  11. Out of touch, isolated;
  12. Restless, reckless, impulsive;
  13. Impractical – overlooking detail and possible unwanted outcomes;
  14. Incompetent at implementation by failing to attend to details through excessive self-confidence.

Owen and Davidson comment that “Individually, these are mostly narcissistic or hubristic behaviours, each potentially risky enough in their own right. But if several of them are being demonstrated by someone in an organisation you care about, something far more dangerous is at play: Hubris Syndrome”.

In 2010 I joined Lord Owen and a handful of other senior professionals in establishing The Daedalus Trust – a UK registered charity set up to promote research into Hubris Syndrome in particular and personality changes associated with the exercise of power in general. I then served on the Daedalus Trust Advisory Board from 2010 until 2017.1

My own professional experience working with senior executives in dozens of organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the US over the past 30 years is that Hubris Syndrome Symptom 7:Excessive confidence in their own judgements and contemptuous of others’ opinions” crops up regularly in organisations all around the world. It’s a natural consequence of someone becoming trapped in their biased, narrow, one-sided personal perspectives.2

The trap of a narrow, one-sided perspective can affect anyone, not just those in ‘the top jobs’. But the self-confidence that comes from having ‘made it to the top’ can easily cause someone to slip past an invisible threshold and end up imprisoned in the fortress of past success.

Combined with a further two or three symptoms required to meet Owen and Davidson’s criteria for Hubris Syndrome, this leads to a systemic, organisation-wide undermining of cooperation and collaboration that eats away at innovation and agility like a cancer.

But even without these additional symptoms, Symptom 7 is enough on its own to stifle, smother and strangle innovation and agility when the affected individual ends up in an Authority Trap.3

  1. The Daedalus Trust website is here.
  2. Find out more about these traps and how to overcome them in this short video.
  3. Find out more in this separate post on Authority Traps.
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