Leadership and Hubris: a Tragic Mix

Every once in a while Steve Woodruff and I choose a topic for Leadership Chat, which takes place every Tuesday evening at 8:00 pm Eastern Time on Twitter and has grown dramatically over the past few months, that is based on recent, real-world events.

Such is the case this week as we tackle, “Hubris and Accountability: Avoiding Leader Self-Destruction.”

We’re all familiar with the alleged wrongdoings of Mr. Schwarzenegger, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, Mr. Spitzer and others like them.  What I’m more interested in focusing on is the second part of this week’s Leadership Chat title – the questions of what causes, and how to avoid, such hubris and self-destruction in the first place.

The definition of hubris according to the World English Dictionary is:

1. pride or arrogance

2. (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin

Dictionary.com goes on to say it’s from the Greek hybris, originally “presumption toward the gods.”

Powerful Words

What’s most striking for me when reading the definitions above are the words originating from the Greek “hybris”… “presumption toward the gods.”

It’s perhaps because the words, “arrogant” and “prideful” are used so often in society today, but don’t always lead to one’s tragic ruin, that the words “presumption toward the gods” left me with a much clearer picture.

The Picture Itself

From these words I envision:

  • Fallible humans who do not see themselves as such
  • Unwarranted courage
  • Defiance
  • Brazen condescension

Where does this stem from? My hypothesis: from having power over others or extreme and undue influence.

What Kind of Leaders Do You Wish to Follow?

Thus, herein lays the problem.  Many leaders who run organizations have power over others and influence over many more.  The decisions they make on a daily basis can change the entire direction of their employees’ and stakeholders’ lives.

Yet, I believe the vast majority of leaders lead from a place of humility rather than hubris.  Which would you prefer to follow?  Might it depend on the situation?

Hubris vs. Boldness and Courage

I think it’s important to differentiate between hubris and the ability to be bold and courageous in the face of great challenges.  We need bold courage from those who will lead the rebuilding of Joplin, Missouri and from those who will help us to honestly approach the issue of debt in this country.

And when we celebrate Memorial Day, we honor every ounce of boldness and courage demonstrated by those who fought for our independence and the preservation of our republic.

Hubris, I believe, is something entirely different.

Leadership and Healthy Power

So, how can a leader with tremendous power and influence prevent tragic self-destruction? I believe it starts with the following…

  • Focus on the divine power within you intended for good rather than your external power over others
  • Have a personal vision for your life and your career that keeps you focused and on-course
  • Know your values.  When you sense you’re moving away from them take the time needed to understand why, and to reconnect with who you are and what you’re really needing
  • Study and seek to understand the lives and principles of leadership role models like Abraham Lincoln

What would you add to this list? And what do you believe causes leadership hubris and self-destruction?  Please share in the comments.

Please join my Leadership Chat co-host Steve Woodruff and me tonight as we discuss, “Hubris and Accountability: Avoiding Leader Self-Destruction” in Leadership Chat at 8:00 pm Eastern Time. We expect it to be a lively discussion; you won’t want to miss it!

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Photo is of the marble statue, “Laocoon and his sons” c 200 BC currently in the Vatican Museums via Wikipedia Commons.


  1. David Owen has written and spoken widely about ‘the hubris syndrome’ (including a book of that title). A talk on its relevance to business is at

  2. Lisa-
    Great topic! I’ll participate if I can. In the meantime I want to say “woo hoo” for your list of things to do to gain and maintain healthy power. I’m starting the InPower project to explore something similar. I believe that InPower leaders do the following:

    -Change the world while reducing stress (theirs and everyone elses)!
    -Deal with what shows up without wasting energy on judgment, attachment and fear.
    -Learn to manage energy (theirs and their teams’) instead of managing their time.
    -Negotiate every relationship to mutual benefit.
    -Master leadership communication and enrolling others in their cause.
    -Define success for themselves on their own terms.
    -Tap more deeply into their purpose here on earth.
    -Create the culture around them merely by being in it.

    I invite you and anyone else interested to join the InPower Project to explore these concepts of “Healthy Power” and “InPower” more fully. (http://reclaimingleadership.com/coaching/inpower-insights/)

    Also, thanks for the RT today. Appreciate it muchly!

    • Dana,

      I agree – I’ve been writing a lot about finding our true purpose lately, and owning our own power. Very powerful concepts! Best of luck to you with the project – may you change the world in ways you haven’t yet imagined!

      • Thanks and thanks for the promo on Twitter. Interesting comment popped up on a post on my blog – are women afraid of power? would love your insights (here or in response to the woman who posted: http://ht.ly/57zxD.

        Sorry I missed the chat, but caught the transcript. Twitter hashtags are so weird to read in document form! But some good links. Thanks!
        Dana Theus´s last blog post ..Co-opting the Power of the Toxic Boss

  3. Hi Lisa

    Excellent topic and blog! Arrogance and self-destruction are at the heart of Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, Spitzer, etc. Indeed, companies that fail either domestically or in international markets, generally have a huge dose of arrogance (e.g., the launch of Euro Disney in France). Love that description of ‘healthy power’.

    Mark Burgess

  4. susanborst says:

    Thanks for the dictionary definition! Look forward to tonight’s chat in a minute!

  5. “Know your values. When you sense you’re moving away from them take the time needed to understand why, and to reconnect with who you are and what you’re really needing” Well put. : )

    Not having clear values as a moral guide and inspiration only leaves us superficial and empty at one point. Living the dream means embracing your core values and making them a deep part of your life each and every day.
    Terry´s last blog post ..Love – The Ultimate Life Change

    • Thank you so much, Terry. I think you put it eloquently as well when you describe them as a moral guide and inspiration for living the dream. Thank you so much for sharing that so beautifully here – I truly appreciate it!

  6. In Ruthless Focus, Tom Hall and I identified hubris as one of the common causes of business failure. It’s worth noting that Hubris is inevitably followed in Greek drama by Nemesis. Spotting hubris in the organization or in yourself is important.

    That’s why I included this post in my weekly selection of top leadership posts from the independent business blogs.

    Wally Bock´s last blog post ..Happy Birthday CNN

    • Wally, I hadn’t realized this so I greatly appreciate you letting me know about the book and how common it seems to be. And I love the insight that it is followed by Nemesis…of course it is, makes perfect sense!

      Thank you for including me – it was quite an honor and I hope that we’ll have you as a guest one day on Leadership Chat to talk more about your book. All the very best!


  1. [...] Lisa Petrilli and I decided to probe this leadership problem for Leadership Chat this week – I’d urge you to read Lisa’s excellent post outlining the tragic mix of hubris and leadership. [...]

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