The media has long tried to warn us not to take success for granted. If you have not already taken the queue from Gordon Gecko’s famous portrayal of greed-gone-wrong in the Wall Street movie series, pick up your classic copy of Oedipus Rex, or re-read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth.
What these modern movies, classic tragedies, and iconic plays all have in common is the tragic downfall of a protagonist who succumbs to weaknesses of his own. In traditional Greek, the operative term applied to such characters was “hubris” or overconfidence. Though conceived when the ancient Greek plays were transcribed, the word still applies to many modern leaders.
It is not surprising that when individuals reach extraordinary heights of success, they often lose touch with reality. The media frequently criticizes leaders who display too much pride, seem overly arrogant, or come off as seriously narcissistic. Less elaborately discussed is the gradual process by which these undesirable traits directly lead to the demise of their possessors.
It is important to discuss the symptoms of hubristic leaders so that it is easy to identify such individuals. It is also important to establish that not all confident leaders are presumptuous, and confidence alone is not a blameworthy characteristic. The danger is when after getting to the top, certain leaders start to become narcissistic, which can be blinding and detrimental to themselves and employees.
Certain industries are designed in a way that breeds leaders who think they are always right. Companies that reward the most confident and vocal employees with better opportunities, increased visibility, and company benefits incentivize their workers to adopt aggressive characteristics. With such incentives, it is no wonder that by the time individuals gain prestige, they feel they deserve it because they adapted themselves and paid their dues.
So how do we determine the point when pride and conscientiousness transforms into overconfidence, ignorance, and arrogance?
1. When a leader starts ignoring the advice and opinions of others. Hence, they often prefer isolation, or act rude and brash when hearing suggestions out of line with their views.
2. Another revealing act is when leaders overuse company perks for their own personal benefits. This often reflects a sense of entitlement and indestructibility.
3. Because of their inflated sense of superiority, leaders plagued by hubris often repeat actions long after they have stopped being effective. Either they are stuck in their outdated ways and have been ignoring relevant new trends, or they simply think they can get away with anything without being detected. Take the great fraud schemes of Enron and Bernie Madoff.
Despite years of warnings from movies and literature, it seems that certain leaders are still prone to go down a slippery path of self-destruction. Therefore, no matter how high the walls of success may be, leaders need to keep their egos in check and their feet on the ground. After years of hard work, leaders should enjoy their success, but not let hubris be their downfall.