If you’ve ever worked for someone charismatic with forthright opinions and a no nonsense approach to decision making you’d probably call them an inspirational leader. Yet research now suggests that when power and status goes unchecked with a senior person or team, a strange manifestation takes place. The increased prestige corrupts their thinking, decisions go unchallenged and consequences can be disastrous.

Overconfidence in one’s own judgement is one of 14 symptoms of what is now being called Hubris Syndrome. It’s a psychological condition I learned more about at a CPD workshop hosted by the British Psychological Society at the Royal Society of Medicine and run by a number of key researchers in this field along with the DAEDALUS Trust and their key speaker Lord Owen.

The change in personality occurs when people are placed in positions of authority that they perceive as empowering, and when they surround themselves with people who support their views. Hubris Syndrome, which impairs decision making and rational thinking, is thought to be behind some of the greatest modern catastrophes like the collapse of Lehman Brothers and RBS as well as other disasters like the Iraq war. The Deep Water Horizon oil spill too bares all the hallmarks of unchallenged authority, as BP’s corporate team seemingly ignored warnings from below and failed to grasp the truth of the situation.

The danger happens when leaders do away with people who dare to challenge them. Their world becomes self-inflated until eventually the bubble bursts and they topple from power with horrendous results.
Tony Blair
Here in the real world we expect people in charge to take ultimate responsibility, but we do expect them to have a team of advisors who offer different opinions. It is when this process breaks down, or the advisors bury the unpalatable reality for fear of reprisals, that you end up with decisions being made from a blinkered point of view.

In a recent safety culture assessment on board a cruise ship I was pleased to see how the captain and crew on the bridge were now actively encouraging this idea of challenging decisions when the course of action was doubted by the rest of the team. However, it’s not easy to introduce this approach in traditional hierarchical organisations or when there isn’t an obvious leader.

We see similar issues in the NHS between consultants and nurses: from the outside in we may wonder why someone didn’t say something sooner about obvious malpractice? In recent cases NHS whistle-blowers did try to speak up but were shouted down or made to feel it wasn’t their place to question authority. Other times there isn’t any opportunity to question standard procedure, even though patients get hurt and staff are unhappy carrying them out, because senior consultants lead by unquestioning example.

How to tell if Hubris Syndrome affects your leadership

Here are some typical indicators:

  • Managers only hear about problems after they cause an incident
  • People cover up unpleasant truths
  • Staff think managers don’t want to hear bad news or negative results
  • Managers are only asked for solutions
  • People ‘shoot the messenger’ with blame and reprisal

To encourage active engagement at all levels it takes more than just putting a sign on your office that reads “open door policy”! People need to know that you respect their opinion whether it goes against their own or not. It doesn’t make you a less of a leader if you listen to others and take their advice – after all it may save you time, money and a great deal of suffering.