top of page
  • Writer's pictureAmar Mehta

ARTICLE: The Hubristic CEO, What Damage They Can Do, And How You Can Spot One

Updated: May 15

In much of western and eastern literature, hubris, makes many appearances. Hubris finds itself pockmarked throughout fantasy tales, Disney adaptations and philosophical texts. Each story, from Icarus flying too close to the sun, to Dr Frankenstein, desperate to make life only to create the poor monster; all tell a cautionary tale of tempering pride, overconfidence and complacency. Hubris, it seems, is not a virtue according to the tales of old. In 2024 it appears society hasn’t fully learnt the lesson, with evidence clearly showing hubristic leadership in a variety of places.

These days, modern science tells a similar warning to that of histories’ stories. In academic studies, hubristic CEOs and leaders are closely associated with failures at Enron[i], the multiple banking explosions during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008[ii] and even have some links to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill[iii]. Hubristic leadership is also believed to have contributed to the failures in the Iraq war[iv]. Hubristic leaders are even associated with companies that are more likely to pollute and care less about their sustainability impacts[v]. Indeed, there are many more examples of overconfidence and a lack of humility that precipitated a major fall. As more data emerges, perhaps researchers (stay tuned) will find clear examples of hubris for the Post Office executive team during their horrible scandal, or maybe recent Boeing execs will demonstrate themselves to be modern day examples of mythological antagonists. 

So, what exactly is hubris in a leader? In corporate environments, hubristic leadership is generally understood to be:

‘An overestimation of one’s abilities resulting in over-confident, over-ambitious judgements and decisions, when allied to a sense of invulnerability and contempt towards the advice and criticism of others it invites negative consequences.’[vi]

Readers will likely have seen this before. In day-to-day interactions with some executives, it’s impossible to not notice these traits. Concerningly, the high intellect, hubristic type might even come across as charming and with swag and flair. Their confidence can be, shockingly, sexy…

So, when dazzled by the charm that comes with the conviction of a hubristic leader, how on earth can businesses, investors, the public, and other executives insulate themselves from the catastrophes that can follow this series of personality traits? It’s all well speaking retrospectively about hubris, but we already have stories for that. Instead, what can we do to prevent these tragedies in the first place? What’s the signal in the noise that separates the confident (the healthy type) from the Icarus, who flies too close to danger and burns the whole company down?

Nowadays, modern research (the same that powers Persona’s personality platform), helps craft a preventative 21st century epic. Language, just like in the chronicles of old, it turns out, tells a deep and layered story.

The way an individual communicates can unveil rich tomes of information that point to a persons’ personality and other behavioural characteristics. 25,000 plus research citations into this area have proved a point. What we say and how we say it, says something about who we are. Hubris, as a series of traits, is no different; those with hubristic tendencies give this away in their language. As just one example, the use of the word ‘we’ can be one of the signals for hubris (when taken with other linguistic markers together)[vii]. This is also counterintuitive! ‘We’ on face value seems inclusive and representative of a leader who thinks about their impact on others. But therein lies the trap, hubristic traits can dazzle outwardly, but actually represent a manipulation. The ‘we’ as it turns out, is superficial. This, of course, is how the hubristic CEO gets to the top in the first place and disarms any threats on their journey to the summit.

Another example of linguistic insight into the hubristic leader relates to what they don’t say. Hubristic individuals don’t refer to ‘friend’ words very often[viii]. They refrain from mentioning terms like ‘companion’ or ‘friend’. This makes sense generally, the hubristic leader likely cares a lot less about friendships and general connection to others because of their slight cross over with narcissistic traits. There are some quirky words of absence as well. Turns out the hubristic among us don’t often use words relating to ‘ingestion’ for example, they don’t often say words like ‘diet’ or ‘taste’[ix]. Freudian readers among us will be scratching their psychoanalytic brains and asking, ‘what does ingestion have to do with hubris?’. That’s a deep dive for another day.

For the 21st century scientist and business practitioner, seeing this information provides a powerful signal for how to manage hubris. Linguistic markers by presence or absence, give away the Dr Frankenstein’s creating corporate monsters. Knowledge here means investors and other interested parties can insulate their companies from another chapter in the book of corporate infamy by assessing their leaders or prospective leaders for such traits. It becomes nuanced, however, when we understand that the traits aren’t all bad. Icarus had great intentions and through force of will and cooperation with his father, was able to fly. Dr Frankenstein used his brilliance to create life. And even the venerated Steve Jobs ticks a lot of the boxes for hubristic traits when his language is analysed[x]. Jobs’ tendencies are confirmed by an ex-partner of his, whom he lived with for 5 years and believed he ticked the boxes for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)[xi]. As mentioned, NPD has some overlaps with hubris. Despite this, under the right business conditions, Jobs transformed the world. All this means is that good corporate governance and smart investment takes advantage of genius but also develops structure to negate the bad traits. In fact, evidence exists that shows strong board vigilance contributes to negating the negative impact of CEO hubris[xii]. But of course, the board needs to know that who they are working with is indeed hubristic in the first place.

Collectively, these linguistic examples also highlight another point, that normal personality assessments, or subjective interviews just don’t cut it when it comes to assessing prospective leaders. As the ‘we’ word example demonstrates, hubristic types at the top of their game are effective at ‘cheating’ personality assessments or job interviews. They are often great at telling a positive story about themselves and convincing others that this confidence is well placed, dynamic and not without significant risks.

That’s where Persona can help. Using our linguistic tools to learn about those you work with or who to invest in, can greatly help provide a genuinely unbiased and accurate way to understand people. And crucially Persona can help you understand how to best work with people. Half the battle is identifying the problem, and the other half is knowing what to do about it and Persona has you covered on both sides of the equation. So, tell a proactive story of your organisation or your investment where the warnings aren’t learnt through paying a substantial price. Let Persona help you understand the language of your people and what to do about the signs, so that when you put pen to paper, your version of a Greek epic revisits Icarus’s story but weaves a narrative where oracles came and guided Icarus to build his wings, but also avoid the sun.


By Amar Mehta, Science Partner


[i] Eckhaus, E. and Sheaffer, Z., 2018. Managerial hubris detection: the case of Enron. Risk Management, 20, pp.304-325.

[ii] Brennan, N.M. and Conroy, J.P., 2013. Executive hubris: The case of a bank CEO. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 26(2), pp.172-195.

[iii] Ladd, A.E., 2012. Pandora’s well: Hubris, deregulation, fossil fuels, and the BP oil disaster in the Gulf. American Behavioral Scientist, 56(1), pp.104-127.

[iv] Beinart, P., 2010. The Icarus syndrome: A history of American hubris. Melbourne Univ. Publishing.

[v] Zhang, L., Ren, S., Chen, X., Li, D. and Yin, D., 2020. CEO hubris and firm pollution: State and market contingencies in a transitional economy. Journal of Business Ethics, 161, pp.459-478.

[vi] Akstinaite, V., Robinson, G. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2020. Linguistic markers of CEO hubris. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, pp.687-705.

[vii] Akstinaite, V., Robinson, G. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2020. Linguistic markers of CEO hubris. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, pp.687-705.

[viii] Akstinaite, V., Robinson, G. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2020. Linguistic markers of CEO hubris. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, pp.687-705.

[ix] Akstinaite, V., Robinson, G. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2020. Linguistic markers of CEO hubris. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, pp.687-705.

[x] Akstinaite, V., Robinson, G. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2020. Linguistic markers of CEO hubris. Journal of Business Ethics, 167, pp.687-705.

[xi] Claxton, G., Owen, D. and Sadler-Smith, E., 2015. Hubris in leadership: A peril of unbridled intuition?. Leadership, 11(1), pp.57-78.

[xii] Park, J.H., Kim, C., Chang, Y.K., Lee, D.H. and Sung, Y.D., 2018. CEO hubris and firm performance: Exploring the moderating roles of CEO power and board vigilance. Journal of business ethics, 147, pp.919-933.


bottom of page