The Hubris Syndrome

The Hubris Syndrome is an acquired personality change. It is sparked by a specific trigger—exercising power. In other words, people who appear normal achieve positions of leadership, but once in power seem to alter their behavior. The syndrome seems to be driven from within the individual as a result of the act of exercising power, and not by outside factors.

Lay observers may struggle to put a finger on the difference saying “he’s gone power-mad” or “he’s lost it”. But instinctively, or intuitively perhaps, they can tell a significant change in behavior has taken place.

The Hubris Syndrome is the presence in someone in a position of power of three or four of the 14 “excruciatingly unflattering” symptoms summarised below

  • They seek self-glorification
  • Act to enhance personal standing
  • Are excessively conscious of their own image
  • Display messianic tendencies
  • Believe “I am the organisation”
  • Use the royal “we”
  • Have excessive confidence in their own judgements and are contemptuous of others’ opinions
  • Display exaggerated self-belief
  • Feel they’re accountable only to history
  • Believe unshakably that they will be vindicated
  • Are out of touch, isolated
  • Are restless, reckless, impulsive
  • Are impractical—overlooking detail and possible unwanted outcomes
  • Implement incompetently—fail to attend to details through excessive self-confidence*.

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.

*A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years, David Owen and Jonathan Davidson, Brain 2009: 132; 1396-1406, here

THE DAEDALUS TRUST

There is a growing body of opinion to suggest that the exercise of power can distort thinking and create personality changes in people that affect decision making. The Daedalus Trust’s mission is to raise awareness of such changes and understand them better.

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