A leader asked me the following question today:
"Many/most leaders fall into the hubris/power trap - and fail at some level. What practices do people have who are able to avoid this?"
Hubris in modern times is typically defined as arrogance, exaggerated pride, and/or overconfidence. In ancient Greece hubris was somewhat different, but was then (as it often is now) ultimately a fatal flaw.
In a leader, I think about hubris as an addiction to power.
The reason I use the word "addiction" is that, like an alcohol or drug addiction, unchecked arrogance interferes with the well-being of the self and/or others, sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly / insidiously. In short, it is having a wrong relationship with power. It can manifest in many ways—here are a few examples:
- Being belligerent or self-important
- Wielding power in an overbearing way, harmful to self or others
- Being entitled
- Not asking others for help
- Not admitting a problem
- Not able to learn from mistakes
- Not taking responsibility
- Being unapproachable
- Overestimating one's own abilities
Any one of us can take on these traits/behaviors at times, which leads us back to the question: what practices keep hubris in check, and avoid its more malignant manifestations?
If the hubris problem is in someone else, it's important to come to terms with the fact that we can't fix the other person. There's nothing anyone can do to help them until they are ready or willing to face it in themselves and recover. In many cases, their behavior will lead them to a crash (in recovery circles, that's known as "hitting bottom,") and one hopes thereafter they will begin an inquiry into their own responsibility in creating the problem, and address it.
If the problem or the desire to avoid such issues is your own, and you want to address it, then congratulations. You're on the right road.
Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
It's important to make humility (i.e., a “right” relationship to personal power) and integrity core values, and to find ways of incorporating them into day-to-day living.
One of the ways to do that is take a regular inventory (for example, perhaps occasional journaling and/or reflecting) of your beliefs and practices related to your own power, self-importance, responsibility, integrity, and personal courage. Here are several framing questions in each of these areas:
- Power: To what extent do you use your positional authority to help others versus get ahead yourself? Do you promptly admit when you are indeed powerless (and not trying to force your will in such situations?)
- Self-importance: To what extent are you (and/or your comfort, security, success) more important than those you lead?
- Responsibility: When you have a success, is it more your own victory, or was it your team? When there is a failure, is it yours, or does it belong to others?
- Integrity: Are you inclined to be brutally honest, and true to your values and principles, or are you inclined to view those as relative to the situation?
- Personal Courage: Do you, on an ongoing basis, identify and face the things about yourself you wish to work on or change, and do your best to address them? Do you, on an ongoing basis, admit when you are wrong, and promptly make necessary amends to yourself and others?
These questions, asked of yourself on a periodic basis, are a good start.
Let me stress, though, that there are many ways to address such issues. I’m a fan of whatever works for you to help you keep on the humility and integrity beam. Self-reflection coupled with coaching and/or occasional check ins with trusted advisors to review recent examples or situations you've been involved in are well worth the time and energy. If such efforts seem time-consuming, exhausting, or may cause you "feedback burnout," then weigh them against the cost of NOT keeping your relationship to power in check, and do the math.