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Dark Side of Leadership

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

What happens when power “goes to the head” of a leader? Most of the time, misinterpretations and misperceptions arise that could result in fatal errors of judgement. These could culminate in casualties and a fall from grace. That is what we refer to as hubristic leadership.

This hubristic leadership; absolute power vested in one individual or a group of leaders, devoid of checks and balances, often doesn’t end up well. It is an epidemic that is a walk on the dark side of leadership.

Manifestations of the epidemic have been witnessed in many public spheres referencing politics, business, banking, the aviation and medical world, just to mention a few. For instance, we have countless appalling occurrences in the public domain, the fatalities in the aviation and medical world that directly point at captains or medical personnel who made wrong decisions from a place of hubristic power.

In the medical world, these hubristic related failures have become sporadic, significantly contributing to causes of death of many patients particularly in hyper-acute areas such as the intensive care units, emergency rooms and operating theatres. In some instances, business owners and the most senior clinical specialists in these establishments, for one reason or another, have automatically assumed command, even in the presence of other members of staff who are better qualified to deal with emerging problems. This is a misuse of power.

In other spaces this has been described as the ’intellectual celebrity syndrome’, in which fêted experts seek to popularize serious ideas or influence contemporary events. The latter can result in concepts being transmitted to the general public in a distorted and unusable framework cascading into a destructive pattern. There is even a term that has been coined, ‘Nobelitis,’ to describe the behavior of some Nobel Prize winners following their award. Some Nobel laureates seem to undertake projects or accept positions beyond their capabilities deluded that they hold some superpowers for the benefit of the world.

So, what is a counter to hubristic leadership?

Contrasted to hubristic pride, authentic pride is marked by confidence, productivity and self-worth, whereas the former is associated with words like arrogant, superior and cocky. When a leader begins to display a grandiose sense of self-importance, then the malady has begun to grip. The subject exaggerates achievements and expects recognition without commensurate results, displaying arrogant and haughty behavior. They can easily be exploitative and take advantage of others or use them to achieve their own ends. Such leaders are prone to feel they are ‘special’ and ‘unique’ and that they can only be understood by, or should associate with, other ‘special’ or high-status people.

There is a difference between a leader and a power holder. Power holders are lustful - they do everything to benefit self, at the expense of others, only to fulfil selfish purposes. To them, the end justifies the means.

Anytime we witness a perennial contempt for advice in a leader, reckless risk taking and an incessant criticism of others, it’s an indication of this toxic behavior. It starts by treating others with disregard and disrespect, eventually manifesting in an absence of humility and a sense of being intoxicated with power. Such leaders believe they know it all, and never acknowledge or reference their learnings, their teachers, their mentors or coaches. They are self-made and ‘walked’ out of their mothers’ wombs, if at all they were born.

They easily mistake all this delusion for confidence, believing that they are in charge and that the universe spins around them. They never give credit to their teams, partners or associations, being totally absorbed in self-importance. Such missteps in judgment steer such leaders down dangerous precipices, believing that rules don’t apply to them and that they are above the law. They have no sense of integrity or ethics despite spending on countless staff meetings speaking about this. They preach water and drink wine.

Eventually, we see the ‘superman syndrome’ where deception thrives in such attitudes of, “I can never fail and need no help,” slowly empowering and feeding alarming blind spots. These kill key leadership drivers such as feedback which align perspective and decision making. Such leaders believe they can achieve everything by themselves because they are all knowing, all powerful and all sufficient. These egoistic, selfish, self-serving individuals continually crush the spirit and morale of their teams. The higher they climb, the harder they fall.

Entrepreneurial leaders need to take special note here because concentrating power in the hands of a few people risks the development of hubris and other dysfunctional leadership practices. Business leaders are often prone to hubris because they tend to get too little critical feedback on their decision-making, but surround themselves by coteries of flattering admirers.

Dr. David Owen, who was a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament for over twenty-six years and served as Foreign Secretary between 1977 and 1979, together with the psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Davidson, developed the concept of Hubris Syndrome as an acquired personality disorder in 2009. Here is an excerpt from their observations;

“In extreme cases, the syndrome has the potential of derailing leaders and managers as they rise up the career ladder. Disaster then becomes inevitable. At the same time, as the opportunities for restraint become fewer, colleagues become less likely to advise, correct or criticize the leader, there being no room or structure for accountability. The challenge then, is to find ways to help leaders create mutually respectful and influential partnerships in their everyday working lives and to motivate them to perceive the need for such a relationship before their Hubris Syndrome becomes excessive.

Daniel Glaser, former Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, has this important clarification, ‘A common misconception is that hubris is indistinguishable from narcissism. On the contrary, narcissism is expressed with a blatantly attention seeking, grandiose sense of self-importance, a persistent and burdensome search for admiration and lack of empathy. Excessive narcissism might lead to or coexist with hubris, but the two are fundamentally distinct, the latter characterized by overconfidence, over ambition, arrogance and excessive pride.

In all shapes and forms, Hubris then, is as an occupational hazard, and seriously needs to be managed. The pivotal role of the leaders’ personality, orientation, beliefs and values interacting with organizational environments and structures is suspect as a root of Hubristic leadership, and can be a place to begin, as we search for interventions.

This article was written by Peril John Alubbe, Leadership & Development Expert at the SNDBX, a one-stop-shop collaborative space that brings together 31+ different professional service experts who work together to help entrepreneurs to grow and scale and entrepreneur support institutions to succeed in their programs.

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