What are some questions raised by recent negative headlines involving celebrities? And what should leaders be conscious of in order to keep hubris in check?
And on the pedestal these words appear
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ozymandias (the Greek name for Ramses 11, an Eygptian pharaoh) is a resounding metaphor for misplaced pride and hubris – the aggrandisement of self, the arrogant belief in permanence, the tragedy of transience. Shelley’s lines about a forgotten and time-ravaged memorial to a once legendary ruler remind us once again of the fleeting nature of power and fame.
2018 marked the fall from grace of several iconic personalities across various spheres of life – entertainment, politics, media, business and more. Prior to this, these personalities graced magazine covers, dominated industry platforms, and received several prestigious awards for their achievements. Clearly, none of them planned for a day when they would make headlines for other less admirable reasons. Success and power have a way of blinding leaders to reality, as well as insulating them from the outcomes of their decisions.
Hubris. It’s a trait we would rather not discuss in boardrooms, even though there are enough examples to show that we must detect and manage it before it damages the fabric of institutions. In this age of hyperbole, we tend to attribute our leaders with messianic qualities. The frenetic pace of our lives provides little respite to be our own selves. The burden of targets and relentless pressure to create impact and value places us on pre-determined paths and tracks that may obfuscate our values and beliefs as individuals. This is a tightrope that leaders have to walk today and it’s even more challenging given the glaring public scrutiny they are under at all times. As custodians of reputation for their businesses, institutions and themselves, leaders today can easily be derailed when it comes to their core values. In such an environment, it is critical to recognise and save a hubrist from himself or herself.
While many may point to the business ecosystem as fertile ground for promoting hubris ― by virtue of it being largely profit oriented ― it is important to recognise that this very environment offers adequate checks and balances to avoid the trap of hubris.
Business is not merely about financial metrics, but also other aspects such as sustainability, diversity and corporate responsibility. Today, most of these functions are outsourced, delegated to managers, or relegated to the pages of an annual report or a section on the website. While meeting financial targets and building scale are critical business goals for a leader to champion, taking a step back to involve oneself in some of the other key aspects can help him or her stay grounded and in touch with core value and belief systems.
From time to time, in the mad race to achieve growth and scale, leaders must pause to listen, observe and assimilate. The stakeholders of a business include a number of different groups – employees, government, civil society, activists, customers, analysts, and investors who are neutral, supportive or adversarial. There are times when overarching ambition and confidence cause managers and leaders to ignore ground realities, leading to disastrous outcomes. We have also seen times when overarching humility and a clawing desire to be accepted as ethical and empowering leaders, can lead to decision paralysis and equally disastrous outcomes. An ongoing check on the gap between perception and reality is imperative to avoid the pitfalls of hubris.
The recent trend of white collar activism is significant. Clearly, there is a growing chasm between boardroom decisions and the value systems of stakeholders at large. Where is this coming from? Why is it gaining ground today? What is the message it is signalling? Are leaders of today so hubristic that they feel they can ignore the rising discomfort and dissent among employees, regulators, civil society and shareholders?
Is this the reality of our times? Once upon a time, hubrists eventually met their nemesis and had to pay a price for their actions and arrogance. Today, those who fall from grace are gifted with several lives, much like the proverbial cat. Is that indicative of a more forgiving era and our willingness to give our leaders multiple chances? Or does it speak of a troubling desensitisation to ethics and values across the board? It is hard to tell in a world where opinions are starkly polarised and our value systems and beliefs are being upended. We vote power tainted politicians back into power. New platforms for endorsements and visibility are cheerily offered to celebrities who have strayed, often more than once. Millions of dollars chase corporate executives who have defaulted wilfully on matters of governance and ethics.
We all largely accept that humans are inherently flawed. As we deify others, or even allow ourselves to be placed on a pedestal, awareness of these flaws will help temper the effects of adulation, fear and awe. As long as we are delusional about the permanence of fame and fortune, hubris will remain a dominant flaw that causes many a powerful person to fall.