Hubris Syndrome: It’s Officially a Thing (336)

“It’s good to be the king”
Mel Brooks in The History of the World, Part 1

There’s a group called The Daedalus Trust. It’s named for the character, who in Greek mythology created wax wings with which his son could fly, but warned him not to fly too close to the sun because it would melt his wings and he would fall. His son, Icarus, however, didn’t heed his father’s admonition. He was too captivated by his flying prowess. He thought himself incapable of crashing. Icarus’s hubris led to his downfall. As a leader of the Daedalus Trust contends: “There is a growing body of opinion that the exercise of power can distort thinking and create personality changes in leaders that affect their decision making. The Daedalus Trust’s mission is to raise awareness of such changes and understand them better.”

This, of course, isn’t new in the human family. It’s as least as old as the story of King David in the Bible, who desired Bathsheba as his own, and so had her soldier-husband killed in battle. He could do that because he was the king. The above quote from Mel Brooks satirizes King Louis of France whose exercise of power bent his conscience and led him to despicable abuse of the poor. There’s historical evidence in every generation of people in power behaving like Icarus (It appeared in Greek mythology for a reason. The writers of such myths probably saw such distorted thinking among their leaders).

In more recent times, we’ve experienced the hubris of leaders that led us into the Iraq war. We’ve seen how some leaders of our financial institutions created the conditions for a world-wide financial crisis in the last decade. We all watched in horror as hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico because everyone connected with Deepwater Horizon, from BP to Transocean to Halliburton, were convinced that nothing would go wrong because they were who they were. The U.S. District Judge who later presided over the legal case described their behavior as “reckless.” And “reckless” is one of the important words used by the Daedalus Trust to define what they refer to as the Hubris Syndrome. When people in power get in the grip of this syndrome they engage in high risk behaviors and make reckless decisions. For example, think of Bill Clinton recklessly deciding to have sex with an intern in the Oval Office. Who would ever think that was a good idea? But yet he did it. These behaviors and decisions also escalate over time until the perpetrator is stopped by a disastrous event, which always happens, and often to the detriment or death of the people around the one with Hubris Syndrome.

The Daedalus Trust claims that Hubris Syndrome is a legitimate psychological disorder. They want to assist governments and businesses with how to recognize the signs of this in their leadership, thus encouraging them to engage in prophylactic efforts to prevent such behavior in the organization’s culture before disaster happens. I wish them luck in their efforts. I’m afraid, however, the human condition will continue to churn out many a modern-day Icarus. That’s why we don’t need Jesus to affirm us as we are. We need him to forgive us for what we do to ourselves and others. He most graciously does.



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