The Tipping Point of Hubris: When Leaders Become Overconfident

Jane Hendy, head of Brunel Business School, Brunel University London, shares with AACSB's EVP and chief accreditation officer, Stephanie Bryant, shares her research on hubris, and how excessive pride or self-confidence in leadership can trigger the downfall of an otherwise successful organization.


Transcript

Stephanie Bryant: [00:15] Jane, I'm so excited to have you. Welcome.

Jane Hendy: [00:17] Thanks, Stephanie. Lovely to be here.

Bryant: [00:20] We're here to chat a little bit about your research. I am really fascinated with the area of research that you work in, which is the area of hubris and hubris in our leaders. Tell us a little bit about your research and what you've found.

Hendy: [00:34] I looked into a large case study in the U.K. NHS. It was interesting because it was a sort of national hospital trust. There was a public inquiry, thousands of pages of evidence, into the downfall of this public hospital, which was one of the largest healthcare scandals in the UK, if not the world.

[01:00] I was looking at this idea of hubris. When I looked through a lot of the evidence, it was clear that, at the management level, hubris was rife throughout this testimony. Also for me, what was interesting, was the contamination of hubris.

[01:18] People often look at hubris from a very individual, sort of psychometric, perspective. The hubris of a singular person, the CEO usually. What I was interested in was the contamination effect.

[01:33] How hubris can spread and the ideas of hubris throughout the organization, and how it becomes entrenched in the sort of lifeblood of the organization and the consequences of this. It grows much bigger. It grows to a point, I think, of being completely uncontrollable. The consequences are obviously devastating.

Bryant: [01:56] Does it create something of a toxic environment, then?

Hendy: [02:00] Yeah. I mean, I think hubris is interesting because many leaders are hubristic. I think a bit of hubris is, perhaps, not a bad thing. We want our leaders to be confident. We want them to be risky. We want the bravado, the danger, and the lack of fear that comes with leadership.

[02:26] In the short term, often, hubristic leaderships can be very advantageous, and you see them, but I think there is a tipping point at which any sort of positive benefits start to fade away if the hubristic leader is not brought to heel somehow.

[02:44] Then I think it creates a toxic environment, as those around model that behavior and it spreads.

Bryant: [02:53] How do you know if you're at that tipping point?

Hendy: [02:55] I think when you stop listening, when you stop accepting feedback, when you stop accepting that there are things that are not going right. I think when you actually start to believe in your own sort of God like presence, and you're believing in yourself, and you're believing when people around you tell you you're great.

[03:19] It's very easy to fall for that all the time. If you're the leader, one of the things that you get is you get people being super nice to you all the time and everybody agrees with you. I'm the Dean of a business school, myself, and it's one of the things of the job. Suddenly, people are super nice.

[03:35] [laughter]

Hendy: [03:36] A lot less confrontational than if you weren't the Dean. I think you have to be very aware of that, and the sort of attractiveness of it. It is, it's a good feeling. You can just over believe in yourself, and you start to think you're a bit God like. You start to think you can cure the world.

Bryant: [03:58] You believe in your own press, kind of?

Hendy: [03:59] Yeah, you believe your own press.

Bryant: [04:02] How can we take actions? How can we help a person who's in that situation? Or, how can a person recognize that in themselves and perhaps reign themselves back in? What are some actions that can be taken there?

Hendy: [04:14] I think there has to be organizational mechanisms. I also think there can be personal mechanisms for you as a leader. People talk about Churchill, actually, as an example of hubris.

[04:26] They talk about his wife as keeping him grounded and stopping that hubris becoming dysfunctional, because she told him. She used to sort of ground him back down in reality when he was kind of becoming overblown.

[04:39] I think many good leaders surround themselves with people that bring them back down to earth when they're just overplaying their hand, and say, "Look here..."

[04:47] They do it privately. You have that person that is your foil if you like, and they will tell you. You need them. I think really great leaders make sure that that person's in place.

[04:59] I also think there's some organizational processes you can put in place, with a board and with organizational policies around voice and around feedback, and around people giving opinions, that can also protect you from hubris turning into high levels of dysfunction.

Bryant: [05:19] Thanks so much, Jane. We really appreciate you coming in.

Hendy: [05:21] Thanks, Stephanie. Lovely, thank you.

Filmed at AACSB's Annual Accreditation Conference in Washington, D.C., September 2018.