Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The hubris syndrome

For reasons of space, last week's column (Sunday Express, June 7), The Root of the Problem, ended without my indicating what I saw to be the root of our contemporary discontents. My view was that the basic problem was not the absence of due diligence on the part of the President, misbehaviour on the part of the Attorney General, the Minister of Finance or some other minister, the Chairman of UDECOTT etc, but 'maximum leadership' which has seriously undermined the integrity of some of the key institutions in our political system.

The leader is not, however, the singular cause of our problem. We, the Prime Minister included, have all become trapped in a political system in which institutions are separated in theory but have become fused in practice. Things fall apart because the centre has become too strong.

Absent mindedly, we are slouching towards dictatorship, even if the symptoms are of the soft and benign variety. In retrospect, Ken Valley was correct, but we have all contributed towards the making of the "coup" that has quietly taken place. We have empowered a hubristic leader.

Some of the characteristics of this hubris syndrome are analysed in a brilliant book by Dr David Owen, In Sickness-and in Power. Owen is a neurologist who gave up his practice to become an MP for the British Labour Party and the leader of the breakaway Social Democratic Party.

One of Owen's basic complaints is that political analysts too often ignore the impact which the mental unbalance of leaders have on how political institutions function. Owen's generalisations are based on a study of political leaders over the past 100 years. One of the central concepts of the book is hubris. The Greeks used the term to define behaviour that is characterised by vaingloriousness and "excess". The hubristic person is one who achieves greatness and glory but who thereupon behaves in a way that suggests that he believes he is a child of God, God himself, or a secular instrument of History, and is thus invincible, indestructible, or irreplaceable. Greek Gods do not favour "heroes" who are presumptuous, and have them self-destruct. The instrument of this fate in Greek mythology is nemesis, the goddess of retribution.

Owen regards hubris as an "occupational hazard" of all leaders. The "hubris syndrome" is, however, not an illness as such and is difficult to diagnose, but those who are perceptive can recognise it in leaders when they get up close.

According to Owen, hubris is more commonly found in heads of government, whether democratic or not, than is often realised. The leader may not even be aware of his affliction and invariably considers himself to be as great as his flatterers tell him/her he/she is. He becomes delusionary and an addict to power with which he becomes intoxicated. As Lord Melody said in his calypso about Jonah and the stolen bake, "power fly up in the old man head".

The key question to determine is whether the leader's behaviour is driven by factors "outside" of him or from factors "within", and if neither, how are the factors dialectically linked. Of concern too, is whether the affliction goes into remission when the leader loses office or is constructively "bereaved", or whether he remains consumed by an incurable political tabanca that might lead him to contemplate suicide as a "Greek necessity".

Owen's case studies suggest that the origins of the syndrome are often mixed. Some of the behaviours suggest that the environment in which the leader operates is the major predisposing factor.

The key external factors would be "overwhelming success in achieving and holding power, a political context in which there is minimal constraint on the leader's exercise of personal authority, and the length of time he stays in power". Incidence of the God syndrome is greater when the leader remains in power for a long period and when there is no credible opposition to him.

Some leaders, however, have personalities and belief systems which facilitate the acquisition of the syndrome. They feel that they have been selected or called to serve as an instrument of the divine, and are contemptuous of those who do not recognise their heroic mission. When they look in the mirror, they can virtually see the halos dancing over their brows. According to Owen, Bush, Thatcher, and Blair all believed that they were called by God and History. As Blair himself explained, "if you have faith about these things (religion), then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God, it's made by God himself". Accountability is not to the electorate, but to God or a prophetic personage who serves as medium and intermediary.

If, however, he is already convinced of his own goodness, that accountability is not constraining, as it would be to the believer aware of his own capacity to sin. The belief in God becomes a spur to hubris rather than a constraint on it. Stubbornness, arrogance and self righteousness come to typify behaviour.

Leaders who have dysfunctional personalities, and who also overstay their welcome in their pursuit of legacy agendas, are dangerous, perhaps without intending to be so.

The dangers which they pose are obvious in despotic or totalitarian societies, but they also exist in democratic societies which have established institutions which are informed by the assumption that men and women are not angels and are corruptible even by the smell of power.

As we have seen in our own case, these institutions do not always work effectively. As we have also seen in the case of Gordon Brown, removing a hubristic leader in a mature democratic society such as we have in the UK, is difficult even when the society has prophylactics such as votes of no confidence and free and fair elections to help constrain leaders.

What then are some of the characteristics of hubristic leaders? They are, inter alia,

- A narcissistic propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which they can exercise power and seek glory rather than as a place with problems that need approaching in a pragmatic manner.

- A disproportionate concern with image and presentation.

- A messianic manner of talking about what they are doing and a tendency to identify themselves with the state to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical.

- A tendency to talk of themselves in the third person or using the royal "we".

- Excessive confidence in their own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.

- Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve.

- A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the real court to which they answer is much greater: History or God.

- An unshakeable belief that in that court they will be vindicated.

- A tendency to allow their "broad vision", especially their conviction about the moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as its practicality, cost and the possibility of unwanted outcomes: a wooden-headed refusal to change course:

- A consequent type of incompetence in carrying out a policy, which could be called hubristic incompetence.

-To be continued

Source: Trinidad Express

To sum it up...Manning is displaying the classic qualities of a budding dictator.

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