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Hubris: Leadership’s Fatal Flaw?

Ego-driven leaders may land the top job but fail to deliver effective results.

By Jane Seago


Cartoon businessman stands on the letters EGO

The business world is known for generating its own distinctive jargon: “drill down,” “boil the ocean,” “leverage.” However, a term you don’t often see on the lingo list is “hubris.” In classic Greek literature, hubris signified excessive pride, a disastrous personal flaw that blinded human judgment and almost always led to a leader’s tragic end. The adage “Pride goes before a fall” warns of the wages of arrogance.

Today, many business experts see overblown leadership egos as one reason companies fail or stagnate. Authors Bill Treasurer and Captain John Havlik cite hubris as the lethal executive flaw in their book The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in the Age of Arrogance.

In some ways, a leader’s exaggerated sense of pride and over-confidence is not surprising. Their “specialness” is reinforced daily in many ways: a large office, special privileges, employee deference. Such individuals may come to perceive themselves as a breed apart, deserving of special treatment—a reward for the responsibilities they carry, the pressure they face to produce results and the leadership skills they are expected to model.

Ultimately, leaders who succumb to hubris forget or misdirect the most basic aim of leadership—improving the lives of those being led. When that happens, they lose the loyalty and support of the very people who make them leaders: their followers.

Workplace hubris takes a variety of forms, many of which align with one of three categories:


1. Complacency. Self-satisfied leaders believe they are doing the job the best it can be done, so why change? They avoid risk because it may result in failure, which could topple them from their pedestal. They fail to realize that great opportunities are often clothed in risk.


2. Transference. Leaders can become enamored with authority and expect complete and instant compliance with their commands. They take credit for department successes but transfer the blame for failures. They don’t accept that employees’ failures are also their own.


3. Isolation. Because hubristic leaders are convinced of their omniscience, they see no reason to talk to and learn from their employees, who can offer useful perspectives. Edgar and Peter Shein, authors of Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, describe this tendency as follows: “Leaders trust only (themselves) instead of recognizing that, in a complex world, they must also trust many others to provide help so that decisions can be made collaboratively, not unilaterally.”


These bad habits contradict desirable traits identified by the global human- capital assessment firm, Myers-Briggs Company. In a recent report, “People First for Organizational Fitness,” Myers-Briggs notes that true leaders possess three types of awareness—(1) of themselves (2) of others and (3) of the broader environment—each of which enables them to lead more effectively. The report also notes that narcissistic individuals often succeed in gaining leadership roles but fail in performing the associated duties.

The antidote to hubris is humility: the ability to respect and acknowledge employees’ contributions, rein in ego, and understand the need to listen—even when the message is unwelcome. It is a “soft skill” that may not always receive enough attention in formal and informal education paths, despite its importance. Strong leaders adopt these humble behaviors:


  • Consider context. Success is seldom achieved alone. Humble leaders surround themselves with skilled people, then they delegate appropriately. They are not threatened by their employees’ expertise. Context also requires maintaining a keen eye on the environment, looking for ways to improve.
  • Invite feedback. Humble leaders request—and heed—constructive feedback about their performance. They know they are not the only source of what is “right.” These leaders are comfortable in a setting in which it’s permissible to debate with a superior about ideas and plans.
  • Own it. Good leaders recognize and own their shortcomings and mistakes, large and small, and acknowledge them with sincerity and humility.

Replacing hubristic leaders with humble ones is not a superficial, short-term fix; it is a recipe for a self-perpetuating talent pool.


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