Hubris and the danger of leaders with extreme self-regard

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime – although the Nemesis of today will likely come with fewer wings. Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Hubris is a dangerous cocktail of overconfidence, overambition, arrogance and pride fuelled by power and success. When found alongside contempt for the advice and criticism of others, hubris causes leaders to significantly overreach themselves, taking risky and reckless decisions with harmful, sometimes catastrophic consequences for themselves, their organisations, institutions, and even for society. Given the economic, social, and geopolitical damage that can ensue, we should learn to recognise the signs of how hubristic leaders talk and act, and how to mitigate the consequences.

We do not have to look far to find widely recognised “hubrists” from the worlds of politics and business. In the recent past, these include former US president, George W Bush, who, along with then British prime minister Tony Blair, overreached himself in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Or the former and final CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, who in his overreaching transitioned from Wall Street royalty to, in the eyes of many, the pariah of the financial crisis, bringing down Lehman Brothers with him.

While there is no shortage of hubrists in the public sphere today, hubris is far from a 21st-century phenomenon. Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte – while peerless as leaders in their time – both fell prey to hubris. The Ancient Greeks recognised its hazards and counselled against hubris in their myths and tragedies, often tying it to a reckoning meted out by the goddess of retribution and vengeance, Nemesis. But perhaps the most well known of the Greek myths to warn against hubris is that of Daedalus and Icarus.

Daedalus and Icarus. Jacob Peter Gowy

The myth recounts how, in order to escape from incarceration on the island of Crete, the master craftsman Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings made from feathers and wax. The wings gave Daedalus and his son Icarus the godlike power of flight. However, the young, ebullient and overconfident Icarus ignored Daedalus’ warnings not to fly too high; the sun’s heat melted the wax holding the wings together and Icarus plunged to his death.

Flying too close to the sun

Hubrists don’t normally set out to wreak havoc, but this is all too frequently the unintended consequence of their actions. Icarus’ demise was an unintended consequence of his own temerity, and so he became the victim of his own excess. Likewise, Bush and Blair didn’t set out to create the turmoil in the Middle East that has reverberated for more than a decade, nor Fuld to catalyse a global financial near meltdown. But hubris and nemesis are inextricably linked; hubrists seem to invite nemesis, and somehow or other it comes to them – not as the philosopher Mary Midgley has noted as punishment – but as the inevitable final act of a pattern already started.

If hubris is an occupational hazard for leaders, is nemesis its unavoidable outcome? Currently, world events are dominated by the election of Donald Trump as US president and Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. Will the unintended consequences of political leaders’ hubris play out before our eyes?

Consider former UK prime minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a simple in/out referendum on EU membership. Buoyed by the outcome of the by no means predictable Scottish independence referendum, Cameron’s gamble on EU membership was, in retrospect, overconfident and overambitious. He thought that in doing so he could be the Conservative leader who once and for all stopped his party’s eurosceptics from “banging on about Europe”. Cameron made this decision reportedly against the advice of close colleagues such as George Osborne, and so in the end it was the eurosceptics who finally got their way, and who now give free reign to their own hubristic contempt toward both the “Remainers” and Britain’s European partners.

The unintended consequences of Cameron’s overconfidence and overambition were calamitous for his own career, they are also potentially damaging not only for the UK but for the European Union and Europe itself.

Another one rises?

On the other side of the Atlantic, it is easy to see how the potential hazards of extreme self-regard could be playing out in the US. The billionaire businessman and president-elect, Donald Trump, already displayed palpable signs of hubris in the speech in which he declared his intention to seek nomination in June 2016. In it he uttered a total of 257 references to himself (compared to a mere seven mentions of “America” or “American”) including: “I’m really rich”, “I’m proud of my net worth”, “I’ve done an amazing job”, “I beat China all the time — all the time”, “Rebuild the country’s infrastructure? Nobody can do that like me”, and so on.

Trump shows other signs of hubris in the contempt with which he holds the world’s top climate scientists and the US intelligence agencies, among others. According to his own ghostwriter turned arch-critic, Tony “The Art of the Deal” Schwartz, Trump will do almost anything to prove how tough he is.

Positive self image is psychologically healthy, and self confidence, proper ambition and authentic pride are necessary qualities for any successful leader. However in the hubrist these qualities morph into excesses, and the hallmark of hubris is contempt. The result is that – one way or another – hubristic leaders end up overreaching themselves and, as we know, the retribution served by Nemesis is likely to be severe.