The Hubris Syndrome

‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’. So says King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was reminded of the phrase when reading David Owen’s fascinating book, The Hubris Syndrome. Lord Owen was Britain’s youngest foreign secretary in the late 1970s, then leader of a new political party, the Social Democratic Party, so he has seen most of the world’s top leaders at close quarters. He was also a doctor before he became a politician, so he neatly combines medical and political insights.

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the ‘hubris syndrome’ –over-confidence leading to self-destruction – is a particular kind of mental illness which affects not just politicians but military commanders and heads of large companies. The idea that power goes to people’s heads is not of course new. Lord Acton gave the thought classical expression when he remarked that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. But Owen has taken exceptional care to identify ‘patterns of behaviour’ which are evidence of the existence of this illness in leaders.

Symptoms include over-ambition; obsession with presentation and the need to occupy centre-stage; self-identification with the state; a messianic sense of mission; the belief that one is accountable only to God or history; loss of contact with reality; a tendency to allow the ‘broad vision’ to overcome practical considerations; and inattention to detail leading to incompetence in execution. Surprisingly Owen omits what I would regard as the chief symptom of a leader’s hubris: his belief in his own indispensability.

The disease grows the longer the leader stays in power. In Greek tragedy, writes Owen, a hubristic career proceeds along something like the following lines: ‘The hero wins glory and acclamation by achieving unwonted success against the odds. The experience then goes to his head. He begins to treat others, mere ordinary mortals, with contempt and disdain and develops such confidence in his own ability that he begins to think himself capable of anything. This excessive self-confidence leads him into misinterpreting the reality round him and into making mistakes. Eventually he gets his come pence and meets his nemesis which destroys him’.

This hubristic progression fits Hitler like a glove. Owen himself concentrates on the careers of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush. Victory in the Falklands war and her success in overcoming the miners’ strike bred such over-confidence in Thatcher that she dispensed with colleagues who disagreed with her and surrounded herself with ‘yes-men’. As a result she started to make huge political mistakes which led to her downfall. The ‘hubristic incompetence’ of Blair and Bush was shown in their handling of the Iraq war. Owen shows how inattention to ‘the aftermath’ of invasion brought about nemesis to Blair and disaster to the Iraqi people. Both men shared ‘big picture’ approaches and ignored practical obstacles to success- a disastrous combination.

The growth of hubris can be checked both externally and internally. The main external check is a constitution which prevents personalised rule for indefinite periods. The most telling discussion in Owen’s book is his account of the way in which Blair progressively subverted British Cabinet government to force through his personal policy on Iraq. Both Thatcher and Blair stayed too long: a powerful argument for fixed terms

But constitutions are not enough. They can be subverted. Owen is ambivalent on whether there exists a psychological tendency towards hubris, remarking disarmingly ‘At one point I was accused of megalomaniac behaviour’. But he is clear that common sense, curiosity, humour, decency, scepticism and even cynicism are important barriers to hubristic behaviour. Can such qualities be taught? The question Plato asked –how to make people fit for power –has become even more pressing in our era of increasingly personalised rule.