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Hubris Syndrome - Psychologists Discover New Personality Disorder Among Political Leaders

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October 30, 2010, last updated April 29, 2012
By LOUISE CARR, Contributing Columnist

It’s commonly believed that politicians won’t get anywhere in today’s political climate without a strong dose of persuasiveness, charm, self-confidence, and the willingness to take risks and make difficult decisions. After all, who elects a leader who shies away from decision-making and doesn’t speak up for the country? You don’t even consider running for office unless you believe you are the best person for it.

But these qualities of successful leadership often walk hand-in-hand with less desirable traits – refusal to listen to advice, impetuous behavior, impulsiveness and recklessness.

According to a new study by David Owen and Jonathan Davidson at the House of Lords, London, UK and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, USA, published in 2009, when these negative traits take over, the leader’s capacity to make judgments and decisions is severely compromised, leading to political and societal disaster.

This behavior, the researchers claim, points to "hubris"--- an excessive pride and self-confidence along with overwhelming contempt for others. Is hubris an exaggerated form of normal leadership characteristics? Or is hubris in political leaders an alarming personality disorder that causes harm to everyday people?

What Is Hubris Syndrome?

The authors look at hubris in leaders as a personality disorder, a syndrome with defined symptoms and a cause. Power causes hubris syndrome – it’s a disorder of power and high office, particularly when power is associated with success and when minimal restraints are placed on the leader. Symptoms of hubris syndrome may be familiar to anyone who has observed the nastier side of politics over the years.

People with hubris syndrome often take action first and foremost to enhance their own image and place an exaggerated importance on how they look and come across to the public. That politician who turns up only to events that further their career and has a scripted response that always manages to be about themselves? Hubris syndrome.

Leaders with hubris syndrome tend to speak in a messianic tone, showing high levels of self confidence that border on the “god-like.” Hubris syndrome sufferers equate themselves with a higher power and believe they are accountable only to that higher power – not to the people. The leader who uses the royal “we” – “we have become a grandmother” – is exhibiting hubris syndrome.

Hubris syndrome is characterized by a loss of contact with reality, a reckless and restless impulse ultimately ending in incompetence.

Who Suffers From Hubris Syndrome?

Out of the 18 presidents in office from 1908 to 2009, seven displayed symptoms of hubris syndrome - Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. One was judged to have full-blown hubris syndrome – George W. Bush. Kennedy showed occasional signs of hubris syndrome, notably during the Bay of Pigs events in 1961. Richard Nixon displayed hubris syndrome including saying to Henry Kissinger in 1972, “Never forget, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy” (released by the Nixon Library, run by the National Archives, on 2 December 2008).

George W. Bush was judged to develop hubris syndrome after two years in office, in the period surrounding 9/11. Four out of 26 UK Prime Ministers from 1908 to 2007 had hubris syndrome - David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

Margaret Thatcher developed hubris syndrome after nine years in office, according to researchers, although many believe she displayed symptoms throughout her political life. Tony Blair developed hubris syndrome two years after taking up office and showed it clearly in the time of the Iraq war and the issue of fabricated intelligence over weapons of mass destruction.

Not included in the psychologists’ report but the subject of increasing concern is Barack Obama. Some commentators note that the president seems to be displaying symptoms of hubris. According to Nile Gardiner at The Telegraph, "Barack Obama and Joe Biden have strutted across the country with a vain swagger that would make a peacock blush,” and many wonder if his arrogance borders on the delusional. More recently, he has been alleged to have started keeping a Nixon-like "enemies list".

Mark Halperin at Time says “the White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters.”

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It's all about me. Leaders with hubris syndrome value their self-image above all.

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