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Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years

David Owen, Jonathan Davidson
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awp008 1396-1406 First published online: 12 February 2009

‘The history of madness is the history of power. Because it imagines power, madness is both impotence and omnipotence. It requires power to control it. Threatening the normal structures of authority, insanity is engaged in an endless dialogue—a monomaniacal monologue sometimes—about power’.

Roy Porter

A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987 p. 39

Introduction

Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence—these qualities are often associated with successful leadership. Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale. The attendant loss of capacity to make rational decisions is perceived by the general public to be more than ‘just making a mistake’. While they may use discarded medical or colloquial terms, such as ‘madness’ or ‘he's lost it’, to describe such behaviour, they instinctively sense a change of behaviour although their words do not adequately capture its essence.

A common thread tying these elements together is hubris, or exaggerated pride, overwhelming self-confidence and contempt for others (Owen, 2006). How may we usefully think about a leader who hubristically abuses power, damaging the lives of others? Some see it as nothing more than the extreme manifestation of normal behaviour along a spectrum of narcissism. Others simply dismiss hubris as an occupational hazard of powerful leaders, politicians or leaders in business, the military and academia; an unattractive but understandable aspect of those who crave power.

But the matter can be formulated differently so that it becomes appropriate to think of hubris …

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