Hubris: The Megaphone of Overblown Confidence


Finding the right “confidence/hubris” balance is critical for leaders. And when the balance tips toward hubris and too far away from humility, problems can arise and impact an entire organization, country, or society.

No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” ~Barbara Tuchman

On Charisma and Confidence

Society selects charismatic, confident and expert leaders who give a reassuring impression of their personal comfort with power. Over time and with the right circumstances leaders can progress from confidence to hubris.

Many examples of world leaders exhibiting hubris come to mind including:

  • Tony Blair
  • Bill Clinton
  • George W Bush
  • Barack Obama
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Winston Churchill

But excessive hubris isn’t limited to politicians. I am sure that sporting and entertainment stars and business leaders with excessive hubris soon spring to mind.

Order or Disorder?

Former UK Foreign Secretary Lord Owen and his collaborator Jonathan Davidson (Duke University Medical Centre) studied 100 US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers for evidence of hubris arguing it as a personality disorder.

What is Hubris Syndrome?

Hubris syndrome is a personality trait defined by fourteen key characteristics.

Proposed criteria for hubris syndrome (5, 6, 10, 12 & 14 are unique to hubris)

  1. A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena to exercise power and seek glory.
  2. A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light.
  3. A disproportionate concern with image and presentation.
  4. A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.
  5. An identification with the nation, or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical; (unique).
  6. A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’; (unique).
  7. Excessive confidence in their own judgement and contempt for advice or criticism.
  8. Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they can achieve.
  9. A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God.
  10. An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated.
  11. Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation.
  12. Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness; (unique).
  13. A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes; (unique).
  14. Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.

“We’ve seen the hubris. And now we’re seeing the scandals.” ~David Gergen

It Depends on Context

Whether hubristic leaders are recognised and remembered as being more or less successful depends on their specific context and circumstances.

  • Winston Churchill was right for war, but not for peace.
  • Steve Jobs thrived in a rapid innovative world, but would he have been appropriate for a more placid business environment.

Whilst entrepreneurial endeavour requires a degree of measured overconfidence to succeed, organisations can also develop destructive Hubris Syndrome, think of Enron.

As with all behaviours, self-awareness is our most powerful buffer against excess; so how hubristic are you?

Detecting Hubris Syndrome

How can you detect Hubris Syndrome?

The way we all use language is a reflection of our thoughts and fortunately for researchers, hubristic leaders are so convinced of their personal mission that generally they make little or no attempt to sanitise their public pronouncements.

Instead they have a primal drive to tell us exactly what they feel about themselves, their ideas and their justifications!

Dr Peter Garrard (St. George’s, University of London) has developed a method based on linguistic analysis to detect hubris in written material and identified clear differences in word usage by the hubristic UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair compared with the more measured John Major.

 A Cure?

“The antidote to hubris, to overweening pride, is irony, that capacity to discover and systematize ideas. Or, as Emerson insisted, the development of consciousness, consciousness, consciousness.” ~Ralph Ellison

Finding the right “confidence/hubris” balance is critical and prevention by raising awareness and developing preventative systems is much more effective and less disturbing for all concerned (including the potentially hubristic leader) than attempting a cure; by the prosecution, coercion or revolution.

In their excellent research paper, Beyond hubris: How highly confident entrepreneurs rebound to venture again; Mathew L.A. Hayward (University of Colorado at Boulder) and his colleagues explain why, “More confident founders of new ventures that fail are better positioned to start subsequent ventures; and, become better equipped to start another venture.”

Curiosity is Your Protection

Constant non-judgemental curiosity about our thoughts, motives, words and actions is a brake on overbearing hubris developing.

This moment of mental re-framing gives us a breathing space to exercise that irony and consciousness so important for keeping both feet on the ground. How each of us achieves this dance in the moment is our business.

Want to spot your own hubris potential? – Ask yourself this:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10 where do I lie for each Hubris factor.
  2. If many of my scores are higher than 5 can I observe any specific expressions of my hubristic behaviour and the effects they trigger?
  3. How do people react to me when I behave confidently – over-confidently – arrogantly or hubristically?
  4. Does my hubristic behaviour nurture or deplete others?
  5. Does my hubristic behaviour achieve my goals and my organisation’s?
  6. Am I prepared to modify my behaviour if it ensures my organisation’s success?

Recommended reading

The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair & the Intoxication of Power – David Owen


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Dr Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
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  1. […] Hubris: The Megaphone of Overblown Confidence […]

  2. Anne Davis on February 13, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Yes, actions speak louder than words. Anyone can brag about their background on a resume or in an interview, but the person prepared to prove it will stand above that crowd.

    Talk is cheap. But being upfront and proactive goes further.