Hubris: A Dangerous Leadership Trait

Sub Title : A suggestion, of course in a lighter vein, be watchful of your quirks

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2022

Author : Maj Gen Harvijay Singh, SM (Retd)

Page No. : 62

Category : Military Affairs

: January 21, 2022

The article aims at suggesting, of course in a lighter vein – be watchful of your quirks. Military Leaders are given to their quirks. At times some quirks are deliberately inculcated to create an aura about oneself. However, with the passage of time, they become deeply ingrained personality traits and can be dangerous due to the consequences of the decisions taken basis these..

Long-serving and high performing leaders often end their brilliant careers on a sour note: guilty of Hubris. A notable example is Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the Revolutionary Wars. He invaded Russia in 1812 with disastrous consequences. The invasion ended in a retreat. His troops suffered from the harsh Russian winter, Russia’s scorched-earth tactics and guerrilla warfare. Napoleon’s hubris is well stated, the consequence of which was the failed Russian campaign resulting in his first exile, to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

“The events which were acted out on the plains of Russia during the ensuing months are the stuff of a Greek tragedy. The enterprise began brilliantly, indeed too brilliantly; and when the good omens became bad ones. Napoleon, supreme egoist that he was, ignored their significance until he and his host were completely and irrevocably committed to an undertaking that was doomed. Never did the gods punish hubris more severely.” -From “The Russian Campaign, 1812” (by M. de Fezensac, 2009)

Let us understand what Hubris is

Hubris: a personality trait involving excessive pride, confidence, and self-importance. It could also be defined as having energy or power and misusing it self-indulgently.

Hubristic individuals overestimate their abilities, knowledge, importance, and likelihood of success. They are inclined to believe that they are never wrong, that they are guaranteed success in all their ventures………….. in the real world they are cause for disaster.

The main danger of hubris is that it clouds people’s judgment in a manner that causes them to make decisions that are bad for them and for others affected by those decisions.

Furthermore, hubris is also associated with recklessness, impulsiveness, loss of contact with reality, unwillingness to consider undesirable outcomes, refusal to feel accountable to others, difficulties in facing changing realities, reliance on a simplistic formula for success, and impaired moral awareness, all of which can lead to adverse outcomes.

Hard to believe?……….well, let us examine General Douglas MacArthur’s hubris.

The North Korean Army was rolling into South Korea in waves post the 25 June 1950 attack. Fearing a spread of communism, the Americans joined the South Koreans to stop the North. At the very outset, facing some stinging losses, MacArthur, the hero of World War II Pacific Theatre, responsible for the defence of South Korea decided to give the North Koreans a trailer of American supremacy (perceived).

A Regiment (Brigade in our context) size Combat Team (A Combat Command in our context) was hurriedly assembled. Logistics prevented any reasonable sized force to be assembled and transported to Korea from Japan in the tearing hurry that MacArthur was in. It was named Task Force Smith after its Commander Lieutenant Colonel Smith! Sent to delay the North Korean communist wave, Task Force Smith became an object lesson in military hubris.

Deployed for the Battle of Osan, it was decimated. Some blamed the defeat on poor training, poor leadership and poor equipment (poor used repeatedly for emphasis). The real cause appears in MacArthur’s statement to the Senate Committee.

I threw in troops from the 24th Division…in the hope of establishing a locus of resistance around which I could rally the fast-retreating South Korean forces. I also hoped by that arrogant display of strength, to fool the enemy into a belief that I had a much greater resource at my disposal than I did.”

It was a naive and ultimately a disastrous gambit, reflective of the hubris that convinced the experienced general that a small force could deter a huge North Korean column of tank and infantry regiments.

U.S. Army Major John Garrett conducted extensive research into the battle and wrote:

“This brave tiny force was placed in front of the absolute strongest part of the North Korean Army…not out of ignorance of the situation, but out of the thoughtless pride of MacArthur and the failure of any other commander to correct or even see the blunder. Task Force Smith was deployed to the Korean theatre without any concept of how and why it was to be employed.”

MacArthur, well, he had to be unceremoniously removed from Korea and faded away

Hubris is sometimes viewed as part of the “dark side” of leadership traits, together with the following traits:

Narcissism, a trait characterized by excessive interest and admiration of oneself, together with entitlement, arrogance, hostility, self-absorption, and excessive levels of self-love; they see their world primarily as an arena to exercise power and seek glory.

Machiavellianism, a trait characterized by being cunning, manipulative, and willing to use any means necessary in order to achieve your goals; they have a messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.

Social dominance, a trait characterized by a preference for clear social hierarchy and for having a dominant role in it, and which involves behaviours such as controlling conversations and putting pressure on others, being photographed excessively; they have a vulgar concern with image and presentation and are always seeking to take actions and create events that enhance their image.

Ethnocentrism, with a strong belief that some groups of people are inferior and that it is necessary to use force and step on them in order to get ahead; their behaviour borders on extreme ownership over their nation or organisation.

♦ They also have a whacky tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’. They have excessive confidence in their own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others; an exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence of being close only to God.

In the final count, they lose contact with reality heading towards progressive isolation. Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness are their key traits. They have a tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes

Such Hubristic incompetence makes things go wrong because too much self-confidence leads the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy; MacArthur ignored all proven and tested policies and delivered disaster in Korea. It was not just the thoughtless pride of MacArthur but the failure of other commanders to correct or even see the blunder that caused humungous suffering and casualties. So, never turn leaders into demi-Gods. Be reminded that their hubris always ends in disaster. To question them can never be wrong, to follow them blindly can never be correct.