Most people agree on the qualities that a leader should have: we prefer to follow people who are confident, decisive, ambitious and persuasive rather than the insecure, dithering, apathetic and weak. So it’s not surprising that the people who possess these leadership qualities are those who seek, and often achieve, positions of power and influence.
There is, however, a dark side to power, which derives from its mind-changing effects on the people who hold it: the reluctance of subordinates to criticise or question leading to contempt for the views of others; successful outcomes of bold decisions blurring the boundaries between judgement and recklessness; personal status within an organisation generalising into a belief in “special qualities”.
The greater the power, the greater the risk of these cognitive distortions taking hold and the worse the devastation when things go wrong, as they surely must when contact with reality is lost.
An increasingly popular way of describing this pattern of behaviour is by using the term “hubris”. In ancient Greece, where it was a legal term, hubris denoted the equivalent of grievous bodily harm; in modern English hubris has come to refer to recklessness and overconfidence among those who wield power in financial or political arenas – particularly when it leads to spectacular or disastrous errors of judgement.
The behaviour of Fred Goodwin while he was CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland and of the senior management at Enron, are popular examples from the world of finance. George W Bush’s embarrassingly premature announcement of “mission accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln less than two months after the allied invasion of Iraq is perhaps the most celebrated example in the political sphere. What all have in common, however, is the contrast between the self-confidence of the leader and the devastating aftermath of their decisions.
These might seem like isolated and extreme examples, but once recognised, this pattern of behaviour is not hard to discern in other contexts, and the stereotypical nature of its development suggests a biological level explanation. The links between testosterone level and the experience of success was documented in a series of experiments conducted on Wall Street traders by the banker-turned-neuroscientist John Coates. The effect of power on the release of dopamine, activating the brain’s reward network occupies numerous behavioural neuroscience laboratories.
Combining his experience as a senior politician (British Foreign Secretary, 1977-79), medical neurologist and neuropharmacology researcher, David Owen has claimed the acquisition of power can, in a susceptible individual, induce a unique pattern of behavioural traits and expressed beliefs, which, he suggests, should be recognised as a distinct personality disorder: “Hubris Syndrome”.
Margaret Thatcher: ‘We’ are rejoicing.
John Giles/PA Archive
To support this claim, Owen looked at the personal, medical and political histories of a series of 20th century UK prime ministers and US presidents and identified a common set of features that could (following traditional methodology or psychiatric disorders) be used as diagnostic criteria. The features included not only the narcissistic and antisocial tendencies already identified (exaggerated self-belief; contempt for others; an insatiable appetite for self-glorification) but also novel behaviours, such as a tendency to refer to themselves in the third person, to use the royal “we”, to identify themselves with the nation and to take decisions in an increasingly impulsive fashion.
Candidates for hubris syndrome
After eliminating those whose behaviour might have been influenced by psychiatric co-morbidity, alcohol or drugs, Owen identified three political leaders from the USA and UK who met criteria for a diagnosis of Hubris Syndrome: the former US president, George W. Bush, and prime ministers David Lloyd-George, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Tony Blair: ‘Hubristic? Us?’
Sean Dempsey/PA Wire
When I read Owen and Davidson’s report of their research and findings in the neurology journal Brain, I experienced the thrill of recognising an unanswered scientific question that was not just important, but simply addressed. I had been working with archived language produced by authors who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in later life, trying to identify markers for the effects of the disease on language, and to determine how long before the emergence of symptoms these changes could be detected. I wondered whether a similar approach could be taken in hubris syndrome, realising that extensive records of language use in two of the Hubris Syndrome sufferers (Blair and Thatcher), sampled at regular intervals over the course of their tenure of office, were freely available in the form of speeches delivered to the House of Commons at the weekly prime minister’s questions and then transcribed for the official record (Hansard).
Lloyd George: knew your father.
Members of my neuroscience research group at St George’s, University of London set to work looking for words, phrases and patterns of language use that changed in a consistent fashion as the years spent in power increased. John Major’s speeches were used as a control condition, as Owen and Davidson had found no evidence of Hubris Syndrome from his time as prime minister.
We found a number of candidate markers: true to Owen’s criteria we saw changes in the relative frequency of “we” and “I” in the speeches of Blair and Thatcher at times when they were enjoying particular success or popularity.
A text’s key words are those that appear in it with the highest likelihood compared to a relevant set of reference texts. “Keyness” is simply a measure of this likelihood. The graph shows changes in the keyness of “we” relative to “I” by year of office for the three Prime Ministers that we studied. The contributions of all other speakers in PMQs were used as the reference texts.
This marker is particularly informative in Blair’s language, and it was interesting that the initial peak corresponded to his early, successful uses of military deployment in pursuit of foreign policy (in Kosovo and Sierra Leone). The smaller peak in Margaret Thatcher’s values coincides with the year of her re-election and the aftermath of the Falkland’s War
We also saw that words indicating self-confidence (such as “sure” and “certain”) gained in frequency as time spent in office increased, as did text entropy (a measure of unpredictability borrowed from information theory). We interpreted the latter as potentially indicative of the “restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness” that Owen and Davidson had identified as one of the unique diagnostic criteria for Hubris syndrome.
Can hubris be controlled?
Our third question (can hubris syndrome be controlled, prevented or otherwise reined in?) is the most difficult of the three. A comforting truth is that democratic elections and government by cabinet with collective responsibility have immunised many modern nation states against the excesses of individuals whose authority is or becomes inalienable. But hubristic leadership in organisations where no such checks and balances exist can have devastating consequences.
In Greek mythology, Daedalus warned his son Icarus against flying too high or too low on the wings that he made to allow them both to escape captivity. Icarus, intoxicated by the experience of flight, ignored the advice and paid the ultimate penalty. The Daedalus Trust was established in 2011 to encourage recognition of the dangers of the “intoxication of power”, and to promote and fund research into its causes, manifestations and prevention. Through the medium of open meetings the message has been spreading among academics, scientists, and the business community, but it is clear that the enemy is still out there, and much hard work remains to be done.