THE BLOG
11/03/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Creon's Fatal Flaw

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Hubris Syndrome is an acquired personality change that can occur in powerful leaders. Because the people who develop it hold power, the effects of their hubris can be widespread and, in some cases, extremely damaging to many people.

The recurrent features which have given rise to concern are well illustrated by the decision making of U.S. President Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Blair, particularly in the period leading up to the 2003 Iraq war. Their abject failure to anticipate the consequences of the war and their belief that an invading force would be hailed as heroic were, in essence, hubristic. It is typical of hubris that there is a gross overestimation of the likely achievement.

The appalling failure to plan for the aftermath of the invasion is also a prime example of hubristic incompetence. Not to anticipate the insurgency and to reduce the level of troops needed for nation building, all contributed to a destabilisation and fragmentation of Iraq. This has come back to haunt us in the growth and advance of ISIS from Syria into Iraq and their claim to a caliphate in what they call the Levant where the objective is to go back in time to a simpler life under Sharia law.

There is nothing unique, however, to politicians about developing hubris. In business life, the global crisis of 2008 had, within its contributing factors, the actions of many senior investment bankers and Wall Street market manipulators. Personality research has already begun on figures in crucial positions such as Dick Fuld of Lehman Bros, Fred Goodwin at RBS and senior managers of HBOS.

Hubris Syndrome is accompanied by 14 signs and symptoms that I elaborated on in an article that I co-authored with Professor Jonathan Davidson. As shown in the table below, seven of the 14 possible defining symptoms are also among the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in DSM-IV, and two correspond to those for antisocial personality and histrionic personality disorders (APD and HPD).

The five remaining symptoms are unique in that they have not been classified elsewhere. In making the diagnosis of Hubris Syndrome, we suggested that at least three of the 14 defining symptoms should be present of which at least one must be amongst the five components identified as unique.

The Symptoms of Hubris Syndrome

Proposed criteria for Hubris Syndrome, and their correspondence to features of cluster B personality disorders in DSM-IV:

APD = Anti-Social Personality Disorder; HPD =Histrionic Personality Disorder; NPD =Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

  1. 1. A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory (NPD)
  2. 2. A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light--i.e. in order to enhance image (NPD)
  3. 3. A disproportionate concern with image and presentation (NPD)
  4. 4. A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation (NPD)
  5. 5. An identification with the nation or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical (unique)
  6. 6. A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal "we" (unique)
  7. 7. Excessive confidence in the individual's own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others (NPD)
  8. 8. Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve (NPD)
  9. 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 (NPD)
  10. 10. An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated (unique)
  11. 11. Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation (APD)
  12. 12. Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness (unique)
  13. 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. 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 (HPD)

Future research on this subject is foremost in the activities of the Daedalus Trust, which I and others founded for the purposes of conducting multidisciplinary research over at least a ten-year timescale. The Daedalus Trust wants to encourage interdisciplinary studies on the detrimental effects of exposure to power and growth of a "yes" culture that may often accompany such power whilst recognizing the positive as well as the negative consequences of confident, charismatic leadership.

Physicians and psychiatrists can help in identifying features of hubris. Further research is needed on how organizations can develop and maintain positive behavioral risk management practices and identify current policies and rules that encourage overly risky behavior. It is also needed to determine whether formal rules to govern decision-making processes might reduce the risk of disastrous decisions while facilitating better and speedier decision-making.

This is an abridged version of what first appeared in The Psychologist magazine, published by the British Psychological Society. To read the entire interview, visit www.thepsychologist.org.uk.

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Iconic Images of the Iraq War