Why do some leaders, from all walks of life, succumb to hubris – arrogance, overweening pride and contempt for others? These questions were the focus of ‘Leadership: stress and hubris’, a conference organised by the Daedalus Trust in conjunction with the British Psychological Society at the Royal Society of Medicine in London in November 2014. Delegates heard about the psychological and biological effects of stress in triggering hubristic behaviour in leaders and possible ways to check its malign effects. Joy Ogden reports.

Leaders, whether Prime Ministers or primary school headteachers, exert power over everyone’s lives. Charisma, self-confidence and the ability to inspire are regarded as important assets in leaders. However, these can become exaggerated and lead to hubristic behaviour – refusal to heed advice and recklessness – and disastrous leadership. What can be done to accentuate the positive and curb the negative effects of power and stress on leadership


Cognitive biases and public policy

Bankers stood accused of wide- spread hubris when Northern Rock’s collapse triggered the start of ‘The Great Recession’ in 2007, said Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England.

He described the bank’s revolutionary change from an agent of government to one with operational independence in setting monetary macro- and micro- prudential policy, and outlined the four cognitive biases (preference, myopia, hubris and group-think) most likely to affect central bank’s decision making.

He linked them to the checks and balances designed to counteract biases in the reformed bank. Parliament sets the bank’s new policy frameworks on society’s behalf and the bank must answer to parliament. Three committees make decisions collectively and hold joint meetings; all committee members are accountable in parliament and all votes are published, as safeguards against the group-think bias, said Mr Haldane.

The bank has decided actively to encourage publication of research which challenges existing bank policy decisions, as one bulwark against the biases, he concluded.


‘Toe-holders’ and time limits

Lord David Owen, Clinical Neurologist, former Minister of Health and Foreign Secretary and founder of the Daedalus Trust, outlined his ‘Hubris Syndrome’ hypothesis. He defined it as a personality change in people who exert power, not a personality disorder. And his new Private Member’s Bill to limit a Prime Minister’s tenure of office to two parliamentary terms, is his strategy to manage political hubris. He also wants a law for fixed-term examination of chief executives with an external adviser and board members.

Lord Owen pointed to successful politicians, such as Roosevelt and Churchill, held back from hubris by ‘toe-holders’ – people trusted and encouraged to be independent critics of their performance. He also recommended mentors, working with the person to hold them back.


Influential partnerships: a role for a modern-day court jester?

Gillian Hyde, Chief Psychologist at Psychological Consultancy Ltd, described the critic’s role in terms of a ‘court jester’.

The more powerful the leader, the less they ask for feedback, or admit mistakes, and the less willing are employees to risk criticising their boss, she said.

To be successful, ‘court jesters’ must have an ear to the ground and must be: trusted by the leader; not competing for power or resources; sensitive to the leader’s impact on others; and protected.

Helping leaders to create sustainable influential partnerships would help to curb hubris, she said.


Dysfunctional leadership

Dennis Tourish, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, also called for criticism. We promote the idea of transformational leaders, and the more we invest in that the more likely it is they will be sur- rounded by uncritical sycophants and become hubristic, he said.

He concluded: ‘We need a different model of leadership – to recognise that leaders don’t have all the answers.’


Mental traps linked with hubris

Jo Silvester, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the Cass Business School, pointed to research showing that, while power might be positive, feeling you don’t have it can be negative: those feeling more powerful were more likely to delegate; those feeling less so were more likely to direct their team.


Psychology of leadership derailment

Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology, Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology, Division of Psychology & Language Sciences at University College London, con- centrated on the psychology of leadership derailment.

He asked why we appoint people who seem impressive, yet fail. Too often organisations, assuming a direct line between certain features and success, only select in; failing to see the potentially dark side, they don’t select out – e.g. a team player could lack independent judgement, someone with integrity could be a zealot – he said.

The root causes of leadership failure are troubled relationships, unstable self-image, rigid, defensive behaviour, and inability to adapt to major changes. Get help with selection and beware excessive confidence and charm, said Professor Furnham.


The biology of workplace stress

Dr John Coates, Research Fellow in Neuroscience and Finance at the University of Cambridge, described his research into the effect of stress

on the body, using City traders as subjects. Being on a winning or on a losing streak feels like a narcotic, he said.

In a state of maximum uncertainty, noradrenal levels rise, which lowers sensor y thresholds, but, when shocks are evenly spaced and predictable, stress response is small. With relief comes dopamine, which targets brain regions controlling the desire for unexpected rewards – risks – and the behaviour becomes addictive.

In severe stress, adrenalin gives way to cortisol. And prolonged exposure to cortisol is highly toxic, wreaking havoc on the cardiovas- cular and immune systems, affecting the brain and memory, and probably impairing the ability to assess risk, he said. A market crash can also cause a medical one.


The winner effect: the neuro-psychology of power

Professor Ian Robertson, Founding Director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and Chair in Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, described his research into brain chemistry changes caused by the experience of power.

People adopting powerful physical postures have testosterone surges, which can improve cognitive function, motivation etc, but if not moderated they can increase egocentricity and lack of empathy for others. People promoted to levels where they feel inadequate are more likely to become bullies, said Professor Robertson.


The role of the media

Jon Snow, journalist and longest running presenter of Channel 4 News, led the discussion on the media’s role in puncturing hubris. There is an insidious relationship between the media and leading figures, he said. Journalists need access to those who will play the media game and deliver good copy.

He added: ‘I think we have to recognise that the media are in the doghouse when it comes to hubris … it’s our job to puncture it but we don’t want to puncture it too badly because we want them to come back on again next week.’

Joy Ogden is a freelance medical writer. This article was originally published in Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, Jan/Feb 2015.