In the spring of 2005, the American public was
treated to the spectacle of well muscled baseball players testifying in
front of a Congressional committee. Only one former player admitted to
In effect, these players took their cue from their commissioner, Bud
Selig: He delivered testimony that essentially positioned him and the
owners as blind, deaf and dumb to the issue of artificial performance
enhancement that was enabling players to rewrite the record books.
The players’ union was even more outrageous; labor leader Donald Fehr
said that the issue of testing and subsequent punishment was strictly a
matter for collective bargaining, never mind that such substances
negatively affect health and welfare of players.
The performance of the commissioner, the union and the players was a
classic example of hubris, the total disregard for what others think
and belief that you are held unaccountable for your actions.
Guilty as Charged
Hubris is not reserved for baseball. It just seems to find itself
in the crosshairs more often. Politicians are notable practitioners;
many posture relentlessly, pretending to take the high road when the
low road is where they actually travel. Business leaders are equally
guilty. When a product launch fails, a marketing campaign sputters or a
policy goes down in flames, they cross their arms over their
metaphorical chests and refuse to budge. Michael Eisner took hubris to
the nth degree when he refused to relinquish his CEO role in the face
of a shareholder revolt. True he surrendered the chairmanship, but he
remained in charge. Does this mean that politicians, coaches and
businesspeople must kow tow to public opinion? No, but as purported
leaders they need to listen to criticism.
Hubris is a human failing. The Greeks originated the word and
Greek playwrights made liberal use of it in their tragedies. Most of us
mortals are guilty of it. And to deny that guilt is an act of hubris in
itself. Hubris is a divisive act. When leaders make mistakes they fail
to acknowledge yet punish others for similar failing, they are guilty
of the “superiority complex.” That is, the rules do not apply to me.
Such highhandedness undermines the moral fabric of an organization.
Therefore, we must acknowledge hubris and guard against it. Managers,
especially those who have been modeling themselves on CEO types who are
guilty of hubris, are particularly vulnerable. Projecting hubris is a
sure way to turn off your people, and in the process fail to meet your
objectives. And when that happens, you may find yourself looking for
another form of employment. The unemployment lines may be the last
refuge of those who took hubris one step too far. So here are some
things to focus on.
- Open the door. Managers who fall prey to hubris are often
those who are isolated. They manage from behind a desk or from behind
closed doors. Often this is a learned behavior. Their bosses did it to
them so they do not really try to break the model. As a result they
rule like martinets: My rule or no rule. Hubris, yes, but also self
defeating. They become prisoners of their own capabilities. They do not
invite others to share the responsibilities. And so when things get
tough, they act more and more defiant. Not only do they hurt
themselves; they hurt their ability to achieve results.
- Look for alternatives. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
came to governorship of California as the alternative candidate. As an
actor, he utilizes his movie star appeal to win over the opposition. He
invites people from outside of government to contribute ideas to
California’s many crises. At the same time, he has stood down opposing
Democrats by appealing directly to the people. He demonstrates that he
has an open mind on some issues and is willing to listen. As a result,
in his first year of office, California regained some of its
equilibrium and the “Governator” maintained public support. Managers
who are willing to look to people with differing viewpoints as
resources rather than enemies have a better chance of getting things
done faster, better, and even more imaginatively.
- Be humble. Lately politics have caught up with
Schwarzenegger. His charm is wearing thin and the people want results,
which, given California’s dire state budget constraints, will be tough
in coming. A little humility might be in order. In this matter, the
example of a previous California governor, Ronald Reagan, might be in
order. Reagan had enough self confidence in himself honed by his years
as an actor and union leader to learn to work with the opposition as
governor and as president. No leader has all the answers, nor should he
pretend to. Humility invites people to your side. They want to help
you, something every manager from CEO to night shift supervisor needs.
Getting Past the Emotions
The emotion that underscores hubris is pride. And there is nothing
wrong with demonstrating pride when it is appropriate. For example,
when you achieve a team goal, go ahead and stick out your chest, let
out a roar. If you bring a project in on time and under budget, beat
your chest. And if you reduce defects to an undetectable level, jump up
and down throw your fist into the air. You deserve to be proud, and
even brag a bit. That’s also very human. As well as very nurturing to
the human spirit.
Defiance is another by product of hubris.
When you know you have made the best decision you can, and you are
supported by the facts as well as some of your people, it is rightful
to stand up and defy the odds. The history of business is a case study
of entrepreneurs who defied the odds: from Edison to Gates and Jobs to
Dell, no one made it easy on them and they succeeded. However, if their
entrepreneurial zeal goes so far that they believe only in themselves
and no one else, hubris dominates. And problems occur. Each one of
these folks suffered a comeuppance or two but they were able to push
past it. In part by acknowledging other points of view.
Too much defiance, egged on by too much pride, leads into the trap
of hubris. The sad part of hubris is that you do more than hurt your
ability to lead. You handcuff the abilities of your people. You chain
them to your ego and so they have no alternative but to follow your
lead, even if you may be leading them down a dark path.
Some of the white collar criminals who found themselves doing time did
so because of this trap – hubris and following the wrong example at the
wrong time. All hubris does not lead to jail but it can lead to
negative consequences – missed deadlines, failed projects, and
disenchanted and disengaged employees.
When then happens, trust melts away and results evaporate. It is a
failure of leadership that might have been avoided if only the leader
has listened more or been less bull headed. But then again that’s