The Hubris Syndrome on steroids

President* Trump,

Sometimes I get some pretty interesting things popping up in my “Pocket” – that online service no one asks for that suggests articles based on one’s reading history. The one that’s been sitting open in my browser for a couple of days is an Atlantic piece by Jerry Useem entitled “Power Causes Brain Damage: How Leaders Lose Mental Capacities—Most Notably For Reading Other People That Were Essential to Their Rise.” It’s certainly a compelling title with a bold claim. Psychologists are generally pretty cautious about making causality claims (“correlation does not equal causation” is a mantra most of us have drilled into us for very good reason) so I was curious what evidence Useem had to support this claim.

He illustrates the problem by dissecting Wells Fargo’s CEO, John Stumpf’s strange performance during his 2016 Congressional grilling, recounting how out of it he seemed. The presumption is that over time, Stumpf grew so accustomed to people doing his bidding that a chunk of his brain went to sleep and he could no longer put his actions into any moral context or see how they might be affecting the distal customers who were being unwittingly dragged under by the multiple accounts WF workers were assigning to them.

Useem also describes some of the psychological research demonstrating temporary changes in empathy and brain activity when someone is primed to remember a time when they were dominant vs. a neutral or empathetic prime. What’s lacking, however, is any strong evidence that holding power over time leads to problems with empathy – one couldn’t really ethically do an experimental study to test this and no one has followed people over time (i.e., pre-power-time through to power-time) to see what’s going on. Thus, it’s really unclear whether those parts of people’s brains responsible for being able to read others end up shutting down as they accrue power or if these people started out with empathy deficits (the reports about Barr’s bullying days as a kid suggest the latter; just saying…..). Being able to read people well enough to be conniving and manipulative doesn’t mean you need to feel them, now does it?

My favorite part of the article focuses on the idea of the Hubris Syndrome, a construct introduced in 2009 by David Owen and Jonathon Davidson after they studied a bunch of world leaders. It’s kind of a mix of narcissism and sociopathy with some leader-specific bits thrown in. It fits you to a T and I’m paraphrasing the 14 “symptoms” below so you can see, but for the full wording of them you can go here:

  • Sees the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory
  • Takes actions likely to cast oneself in a good light
  • Is overly concerned with image and presentation
  • Has a messianic way of talking
  • Is so identified with the nation/organization that they regard the interests as identical
  • Speaks of oneself in the third person or uses the royal ‘we’
  • Has excessive confidence in own judgment and contempt for the advice/criticism of others
  • Has exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence
  • Believes that not accountable to ordinary people’s opinions, that they answer to history or god
  • Holds the unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated
  • Loses contact with reality; becomes increasingly isolated
  • Displays restlessness, recklessness, and impulsiveness
  • Is so invested in their ‘broad vision’ that other considerations (practicality, cost, possible unwanted outcomes) are ignored
  • Policies are incoherent because leader’s arrogance leads to neglect of nuts and bolts

We can just go down the list and say “check” fourteen times – seriously, you are THE textbook case of the Hubris Syndrome.

And, we all need to pray to whomever or whatever we believe is larger than ourselves that you serve as THE example of an anti-leader for countless generations to come and that future leaders do whatever is necessary so they don’t lose the ability to empathize. Humanity and the planet can’t withstand another like you for a very, very long time.

May we be safe from brain damaged leaders.
May we reset expectations for our leaders with empathy as the centerpiece.
May leadership be about promoting the community’s wellbeing.
May we accept egalitarian, consensus-driven models of leadership before it’s too late.

Tracy Simpson

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