The horrors of hubris

Hubris in business takes many forms. There’s the small stuff we can all have a chuckle about.

Hubris in business takes many forms. There’s the small stuff we can all have a chuckle about.

Hubris in business takes many forms. There’s the small stuff we can all have a chuckle about.

Then there’s management hubris, leading to senior figures using the company for their personal gain.

Finally, there’s the hubris that leads to dangerous corporate activity, putting shareholders and staff at risk.

Two recent, unsolicited emails are good examples of amusing hubris: ‘Fantastic double offer: Hear me speak and save £30!’ and one from a potential recruit headed ‘Opportunity to work with a living legend’. Yes, he was describing himself! And I could tell a good few stories against myself in this category.

Much more serious is the second category: a great example is former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski and his personal spend (the legendary $6,000 shower curtain charged to the company is but a small example).

This prompted Jim Kouzes, co-author of The Leadership Challenge, to warn: ‘Don’t confuse ascendance with divinity. We often misattribute the permission we’re given to lead by our constituents, to a permission to behave as we want.’

Conrad Black clearly didn’t take this message to heart. He was seen to have looted his company in order to support the extraordinary lifestyle of himself and his wife, Barbara Amiel. His quote, ‘I may make mistakes, but I can’t think of any’, has to be in the all-time top ten of the hubris league.

Then we come to the third and most dangerous category, where companies’ very survival is put at stake. Only, as we all know, this has just gone one stage further in the financial sector, where the whole economy of the West has been put at risk.

Certainly a large part of the banking wreck has been caused by hubris. When you get a $200 million bonus, you just “know” you’re a Master of the Universe. Your contemporaries celebrate with $44,000 dinners and $2 million birthday parties. It’s difficult for one’s judgement to remain unclouded in such an environment.
The long upward financial surge had convinced many leaders they were divine beings. And so CEO Dick Fuld lost Lehman Brothers: not able to accept the fast unravelling situation, he prevaricated, misjudging how bad things were and destroyed the whole company, 30 per cent of which was owned by its employees. Thousands lost their jobs and their savings as a result. Yet his shameless performance before the Senate showed he still doesn’t get it.

As Chris Blackhurst wrote in the Evening Standard: ‘It’s as if nobody ever learns, nobody ever dares to stand back and ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why?’ Every chief executive should have one word in big capital letters on the wall opposite their desks – HUBRIS.’

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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