Why do we end up with so many bad leaders at the top? A big reason is hubris.
Hubris is an old word that explains some modern failings of leadership. Aristotle explained hubris as a leader’s overconfidence in his own abilities and the abuse of power.
Most of us can call to mind a leader who fits this description. Our news media and, for many, our daily experiences of life and work are dominated by leaders who hold overly confident views of their own abilities and abuse power for their own gain.
Leaders affected by hubris have no regard for their own limitations or fallibility, they do things such as pay too much for unprofitable acquisitions, take unfunded risks, show active disregard for others, and reward themselves with outlandish compensation packages.
The problem is, we reinforce hubris by how we select and promote leaders.
Rigorous selection of leaders makes sense. We want to make sure we’re handing the reins to the right person. But rigorous selection could also be reinforcing hubris.
You see, if I think I’m pretty good and I like power, I’ll probably go for promotion to leadership.
If, after rigorous and competitive evaluation, I am selected as the best candidate for the job, this reaffirms that my confidence is founded and that I deserve power.
How do we break this cycle of perpetuating hubris at the top?
A recent study published in a respected leadership journal takes a page out of the history books to test a promising alternative: lottery.
In ancient city states, including Athens, Venice and Frankfurt, community leaders were selected at random. Or at least, in part, at random. Through alternating rounds of selection by competence and selection by lottery, the issue of hubris was mitigated.
Think about it: You need some basic skills to make it past the first round of selection, then there is a lottery to decide who actually lands the top job. What message does this send? You are not here because you are the best of the best. You are here because you have the basic skills required and your name was pulled out of the hat.
This is like serving a promotion offer with a side of humble pie.
Using advanced computerised laboratory experiments, the study mentioned above found that teams led by leaders who were selected by a combination of competency and lottery, led more effective teams than did leaders who were selected by competence alone.
I’m not suggesting HR departments rush headlong into selection by lottery, but I am suggesting we think carefully about how we select leaders, how existing recruitment and promotion processes might reinforce hubris, and how we might break the cycle that too often ends up putting power and prestige in the hands of people who desperately want power and prestige.
If you’re someone who steps towards leadership, consider your intentions
I am a firm believer that leaders are made. Through continual learning, experience and reflection, leadership competence can be developed. I actively encourage people to step into their leadership potential.
But it is essential that we check our intentions. Frequently.
Wanting power and prestige is not a good reason to pursue leadership. Wanting to bring about change; wanting to achieve something greater than an individual might achieve alone; wanting to foster generative dynamics among people; wanting to make your team, organisation, community or the world a better place — these are good reasons to pursue leadership.
And these are things that will only happen through good leadership.
If you’re someone who steps away from leadership, consider why
Common reasons include: ‘I don’t look like a leader’ (loud, white, well-dressed, male); ‘I don’t want the responsibility’ (for collective outcomes, ambitious goals, and other peoples’ experience of work and wellbeing); and ‘I don’t want to play the game’ (office politics, power politics, who-you-know, cultural norms at the top).
But, each of these reasons deserves to be challenged.
Not looking like a leader speaks to a current lack of diversity at the top. Being fearful of the responsibility of leading is absolutely warranted as it is a huge responsibility — one that should be taken on by people who are acutely aware of that fact. And not wanting to ‘play the game’, might just suggest that instead of office politics, you’d rather be kicking the goals that count, like pulling your team together, helping each member do and become the best they can, and fostering the collective effort it takes to create new and different and good things.