5-second summary
  • Hubris syndrome occurs when someone in a position of power develops a magnified and embellished view of themselves and their capabilities, resulting in excessive self-confidence, obsession with personal image, and contempt for criticism.
  • Teams led by individuals with hubris syndrome suffer from a lack of trust, weak relationships, poor decision-making, and ineffective teamwork.
  • Don’t confuse hubris syndrome with narcissistic personality disorder: the former is a temporary psychological state, while the latter is a clinical diagnosis.

In most cases, leaders get to the top because they know their stuff. They bring years of hard-won knowledge, experience, and expertise to the table.

Naturally, those skills and achievements warrant a healthy ego and a positive self-perception. Leaders who have worked hard to get where they are deserve to feel good about it.

But when that confidence inflates to an extreme, irrational, and/or unfounded level, you’re no longer dealing with only a strong self-image. Now, the behavior indicates something more problematic.

What is hubris syndrome?

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Hubris syndrome is when someone in a position of power develops a magnified and embellished view of themselves and their capabilities. A lot of what you need to know it is right in the definition of “hubris”: exaggerated pride or self-confidence. Afflicted individuals might exhibit:

  • Excessive self-confidence
  • Obsession with personal image
  • Contempt toward people who offer criticism
  • Detachment from reality 

Put simply, leaders with hubristic tendencies believe not only that they’re better than everybody else, but that they’re completely infallible. They fail to see their own mistakes or shortcomings and truly believe they can do no wrong.

What causes hubris syndrome?

Hubristic traits are triggered by achieving a position of power, and it typically worsens the longer someone holds power and the more power they accumulate. This is especially true if a leader’s decisions and directives are successful – seeing positive results further inflates their self-confidence.

Hubris syndrome is often explained in the context of presidents, prime ministers, and other political leaders. While those figures are easy and recognizable study subjects, hubris syndrome can happen to anyone who holds some level of power – from a CEO to a team lead.

And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not all that rare. As psychiatrist Dr. Steven Berglas explains in an article for Harvard Business Review, “Many good people will, under bad circumstances, suffer from hubris.” 

Need proof? In one survey from Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence, 88% of executives said they think they made excellent decisions during the COVID pandemic. Only 53% of employees agree. Our own research found that managers consistently rated every aspect of their team culture higher than their direct reports did. That discrepancy shows that reaching a position of power can distort not only your perception of yourself, but your perception of your team and your entire organization. 

What’s the difference between hubris syndrome and narcissism?

Overconfidence? Self-importance? Arrogance? Superiority? It all sounds suspiciously similar to another term that gets thrown around a lot: narcissism. 

It’s true that there is some overlap between the visible symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and hubris syndrome, and some researchers – including pioneering scholar David Owen – asserting that the two afflictions are simply different points on one continuum.

However, exhibiting hubris doesn’t automatically mean someone is, at least clinically speaking, a narcissist. Here’s the gist:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder: As the name implies, this is a personality disorder. It’s a diagnosable mental health condition that typically appears in late childhood or early adolescence. 
  • Hubris syndrome: This is not an outcome of your specific personality – it’s an outcome of your environment. It appears only when someone achieves power, and usually subsides once they no longer have power. As one academic paper states, hubris syndrome should not be seen as a “personality disorder but an illness of position as much as of the person.” 

The negative effects of hubris syndrome

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You don’t need to be a psychologist to assume that a leader who thinks they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread can cause some problems. But what sort of problems?

  • Lack of trust: While the leader themselves might think they can do no wrong, people around them may beg to differ. Their inability to see or take accountability for their own shortcomings or incompetence erodes trust with their colleagues and direct reports. Research shows that humility is a key trait of trustworthy leaders. 
  • Weak relationships: It’s nearly impossible to have a solid relationship – personal or professional – without a foundation of trust. People can’t forge solid bonds with leaders who are overly arrogant and self-indulgent. 
  • Irrational decision-making: Leaders exhibiting excessive hubris are unwilling to hear criticism of their behavior and ideas. They make decisions (sometimes irrational ones) without valuable insights and input from other people and are often perceived as impulsive and reckless. 
  • Ineffective teams: Without trust, or the benefit of diverse perspectives, hubris syndrome usually ends up being a detriment to the results a leader is able to achieve. Research demonstrates that teams are most effective when they feel their leader admits mistakes and is open to learning from others. And conversely, when leaders are unwilling or unable to do so, and show contempt for well-meaning pushback, their team and their performance suffer. 

How to address hubris syndrome

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The tricky part about hubris syndrome is that it’s a problem with self-perception. That means people with hubris syndrome lack the self-awareness needed to even recognize they have it in the first place.

So, one of the best ways to address hubris syndrome is to prevent it from cropping up in the first place. When you assume a position of leadership, take these proactive steps to keep your own self-image grounded in reality.

1. Ask for feedback regularly

Soliciting feedback from other people highlights what you’re doing well – but it also calls your attention to areas where you could improve.

Whether you ask for feedback at the end of one-on-one meetings or through regular surveys, the important thing is to actually do something with that feedback. Resist the urge to write it off as unfounded criticism from people who obviously can’t see the big picture. Dig into that feedback (ask clarifying questions if you need to!) to get a better grasp on your shortcomings.

Yes, addressing those makes you a better leader – but having the humility to recognize them does too. 

2. Understand the ins and outs of your personality

Building self-awareness is hard. And while asking for feedback is a step in the right direction, using a more formal assessment or exercise can give you a deeper understanding of who you are as a leader.

Some of the most popular assessments and frameworks include:

Since hubris syndrome typically involves a departure from self-awareness, it’s helpful to have some actual data to illuminate both your strengths and weaknesses. After all, power does not automatically equal proficiency. 

3. Get your hands dirty 

As a leader, sometimes you need a good slice of humble pie, whether you’re suffering from hubris syndrome or not. And one of the best ways to bring yourself back down to earth is to do some grunt work yourself.

If a team member is struggling with something, jump in and attempt the task right alongside them. If there’s a certain recurring responsibility your team dreads, take it on yourself this month. 

Embracing a servant leadership mentality fosters trust and goodwill, puts you in touch with the actual work of your team, and keeps you grounded. After all, the most beloved leaders never ask their teams to do something they aren’t willing to do themselves. 

Power without the pompousness

In his book 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler.” 

And while 1984 is a dystopian fiction novel, Orwell aptly describes the reality of hubris syndrome – an issue that impacts a surprising number of leaders, from CEOs and managers to presidents and politicians. 

Power can be exhilarating, but it needs to be balanced by an equal amount of humility, realism, and self-awareness. Doing so will help you keep your feet on the ground – even if you’ve reached the top rung of the ladder.

When a healthy ego goes rogue, hubris syndrome lurks