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Have you succumbed to hubris?

I’ve always loved reading the ancient writings of Greek mythology.

The stories have always fascinated me because they spoke so eloquently about the human condition of the time. 

But what I find particularly interesting is how many of those ancient texts are still relevant to our current world.

One prominent and recurring theme in those ancient stories is the idea of hubris.

Hubris is seen as a character flaw in people of power when they become extremely arrogant and disconnect from reality. The ancient Greek writers and philosophers cautioned people to prevent themselves from succumbing to hubris.

Now, let’s fast forward a few thousand years to the present day, and this topic of hubris is as relevant as ever.

I believe it is a challenge that all leaders must manage – especially those who are extremely successful and yield great power.

The topic has also become important today because research from the field of neuroscience reveals that when one is consumed by power and falls victim to hubris, it may actually cause damage to one’s brain.

Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi examined the brains of powerful and non-powerful people using a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine. He found that powerful people had an impairment of the “mirroring” process that neuroscience has identified as a “cornerstone of empathy.”

The article noted that this scientific data seemed to correspond very closely with anecdotal data collected by researchers such as Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley. His research found that subjects with access to power “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-averse, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” That is to say, less empathetically.

It’s not hard to find examples ripped from the headlines and from my own experience working face-to-face with some very powerful leaders. It is not unusual at times for me to encounter leaders who seem unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, completely unaware that their worlds are disintegrating around them.

Other researchers have fashioned a term for this condition: hubris syndrome.

The combination of all this study and data begs a critical question for all leaders: Are we destined to become victims of hubris syndrome the longer we enjoy success and increasing access to power?

I think there are things we can do to guard ourselves against this from happening. At the core, it begins with a leader’s natural capacity for maturity.

The most obvious recent example is from the leaked video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick berating one of his drivers. Unfortunately for Kalanick, that video triggered a series of events leading to his own personal downfall.

So, how do leaders manage their power and avoid succumbing to a hubris syndrome? Here are a few ideas for you to consider.

Second, it’s helpful to surround yourself with people (either at work or at home) who have the courage to call you out when your arrogance starts getting the best of you. The Atlantic article shared a great anecdote from PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi about a conversation she had with her mother on the day she was promoted to the top rung of the C-suite. Her mother asked her before she celebrated her big news if she would go out and get some milk, a request that made Nooyi quite mad. “Leave that damn crown in the garage,” her mother admonished.

The fact that Nooyi still tells that story says a lot about having people in your life who keep you in check. It’s a reminder that you are never too powerful nor too important to make a contribution to the most menial of tasks, both at home and at work.

Have you succumbed to hubris?

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