Hubris and humility

In a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic revives the Peter Principle (though he doesn’t mention it), asking a number of questions about why more men rise to senior positions.

The piece – and one of the academic papers linked to it – takes female ‘humility’ and opposes it to male hubris. Humility is a more positive way of expressing Paula Principle Factor 3 – lack of self-confidence – and the difference between the positive and negative expressions is worth discussing. But ‘hubris’ is an even more interesting term.

TC-P argues that we are often unable to see the difference between competence and confidence. So people – usually men – who exhibit more confidence tend to be taken as more competent, whether or not they actually possess the competence in question. He moves on to talk about overconfidence, and psychological research which shows that groups tend to appoint overconfident and narcissistic people as leaders. I wonder what headhunters would have to say about this.

Drawing the line between confidence and overconfidence is of course difficult and very much a matter of personal judgement. But ‘hubris’ brings in another dimension. In its classical sense, hubris is a tragic flaw – tragic because it’s a fatal weakness which brings down an otherwise generally heroic man (I don’t think that the Greeks ever applied it to women, though I may be wrong). think Creon, or Macbeth.

So we have a nice little trio to play around with: healthy confidence; dysfunctional overconfidence; and hubris, with its combination of admirable leadership qualities with a fatal tendency to excess. How would we classify our various business or political leaders?


Just for contrast, and as a reminder that these qualities are not only relevant to senior executive positions, I thought I’d add in the well-known image of Rosie the Riveter, which I saw recently in the British Library’s stimulating current exhibition of Power and Propaganda. Confident, I think.

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