Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis

Article: Hubristic Leaders

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“Napoleon I in 1814” by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, 1862, \ccpd

Before You Read

Discuss the following questions with a partner before you read the article.

  1. How does hubris and nemesis apply to famous leaders? Can you give any examples?
  2. If history has told through these Greek myths the consequences of hubris, why does it continue to happen today?
  3. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

Vocabulary in Context

Try to guess the vocabulary in bold using the context.

  1. Given the economic, social, and geopolitical damage that can ensue, we should learn to recognize the signs of how hubristic leaders talk and act, and how to mitigate the consequences.
  2. Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte—while peerless as leaders in their time—both fell prey to hubris.
  3. The myth recounts how, in order to escape from incarceration on the island of Crete, the master craftsman Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings made from feathers and wax.
  4. …the sun’s heat melted the wax holding the wings together and Icarus plunged to his death.
  5. Hubrists don’t normally set out to wreak havoc, but this is all too frequently the unintended consequence of their actions.
  1. Icarus’ demise was an unintended consequence of his own overconfidence, and so he became the victim of his own excess.
  2. Likewise, Bush and Blair didn’t set out to create the turmoil in the Middle East that has reverberated for more than a decade, nor Fuld to catalyze a global financial near meltdown.
  3. The unintended consequences of Cameron’s overconfidence and overambition were calamitous for his own career, they are also potentially damaging not only for the U.K. but for the European Union and Europe itself.
  4. According to his own ghostwriter turned arch-critic, Tony “The Art of the Deal” Schwartz, Trump will do almost anything to prove how tough he is.
  5. However in the hubrist these qualities morph into excesses, and the hallmark of hubris is contempt.

Hubris and the Danger of Leaders with Extreme Self-regard

Adapted from an article by Eugene Sadler-Smith,  Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Surrey, for The Conversation, \ccbynd

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Hubris is a dangerous mixture of overconfidence, overambition, arrogance and pride fueled by power and success. When found alongside contempt for the advice and criticism of others, hubris causes leaders to significantly overreach themselves, taking risky and reckless decisions with harmful, sometimes catastrophic consequences for themselves, their organizations, institutions, and even for society. Given the economic, social, and geopolitical damage that can ensue, we should learn to recognize the signs of how hubristic leaders talk and act, and how to mitigate the consequences.

We do not have to look far to find widely recognized “hubrists” from the worlds of politics and business. In the recent past, these include former U.S. president George W. Bush, who, along with then British prime minister Tony Blair, overreached himself in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Or the former and final CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, who in his overreaching transitioned from Wall Street royalty to, in the eyes of many, the outcast of the financial crisis, bringing down Lehman Brothers with him.

While there is no shortage of hubrists in the public sphere today, hubris is far from a 21st-century phenomenon. Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte—while peerless as leaders in their time—both fell prey to hubris. The Ancient Greeks recognized its hazards and counseled against hubris in their myths and tragedies, often tying it to punishment given by the goddess of retribution and vengeance, Nemesis. But perhaps the most well-known of the Greek myths to warn against hubris is that of Daedalus and Icarus.

The myth recounts how, in order to escape from incarceration on the island of Crete, the master craftsman Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings made from feathers and wax. The wings gave Daedalus and his son Icarus the godlike power of flight. However, the young, cheerful and overconfident Icarus ignored Daedalus’ warnings not to fly too high; the sun’s heat melted the wax holding the wings together and Icarus plunged to his death.

Flying too close to the sun

Hubrists don’t normally set out to wreak havoc, but this is all too frequently the unintended consequence of their actions. Icarus’ demise was an unintended consequence of his own overconfidence, and so he became the victim of his own excess. Likewise, Bush and Blair didn’t set out to create the turmoil in the Middle East that has reverberated for more than a decade, nor Fuld to catalyze a global financial near meltdown. But hubris and nemesis are inextricably linked; hubrists seem to invite nemesis, and somehow or other it comes to them—not as the philosopher Mary Midgley has noted as punishment—but as the inevitable final act of a pattern already started.

If hubris is an occupational hazard for leaders, is nemesis its unavoidable outcome? Currently, world events are dominated by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. Will the unintended consequences of political leaders’ hubris play out before our eyes?

Consider former U.K. prime minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a simple vote on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union. Buoyed by the outcome of the Scottish independence vote, where in 2014 most voted “no” on Scotland leaving the UK, Cameron expected the 2016 “Brexit” vote for the UK to leave the EU to also be “no”. Cameron’s gamble on EU membership was, in retrospect, overconfident and overambitious. He thought that in doing so he could be the Conservative leader who once and for all stopped his party from complaining about Europe. Cameron made this decision reportedly against the advice of close colleagues such as George Osborne. 51.9% of those who voted said “yes” to the UK leaving the EU, and so in the end it was the euroskeptics who finally got their way, and who now give free rein to their own hubristic contempt toward both the “Remainers”, those who voted to stay in the EU, and Britain’s European partners.

The unintended consequences of Cameron’s overconfidence and overambition were calamitous for his own career, they are also potentially damaging not only for the U.K. but for the European Union and Europe itself.

Another one rises?

On the other side of the Atlantic, it is easy to see how the potential hazards of extreme self-regard could be playing out in the U.S. The billionaire businessman and president-elect Donald Trump already displayed palpable signs of hubris in the speech in which he declared his intention to seek nomination in June 2016. In it he uttered a total of 257 references to himself (compared to a mere seven mentions of “America” or “American”) including: “I’m really rich,”“I’m proud of my net worth,”“I’ve done an amazing job,”“I beat China all the time, all the time,”“Rebuild the country’s infrastructure? Nobody can do that like me,” and so on.

Trump shows other signs of hubris in the contempt with which he holds the world’s top climate scientists and the U.S. intelligence agencies, among others. According to his own ghostwriter turned arch-critic, Tony “The Art of the Deal” Schwartz, Trump will do almost anything to prove how tough he is.

Positive self-image is psychologically healthy, and self-confidence, proper ambition and authentic pride are necessary qualities for any successful leader. However in the hubrist these qualities morph into excesses, and the hallmark of hubris is contempt. The result is that—one way or another—hubristic leaders end up overreaching themselves and, as we know, the retribution served by Nemesis is likely to be severe.

The Conversation

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions according to the article. Discuss your answers with a partner.

  1. What are three examples of hubristic leaders given in the article? What do they do that shows hubris?
  2. What is unfortunately a side effect of hubrists’ actions?
  3. What does the author predict at the end of the article?

CEFR Level: CEF Level C1

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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