The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: Hubristic Syndrome


Hubristic Syndrome is an acquired disorder, which can develop in a person in a significant position of power for one to nine years on average, and has following 14 symptoms (Owen & Davidson, 2009):

  1. A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  2. A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light — i.e. in order to enhance the image
  3. A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  4. A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation
  5. Identification with the nation, or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical
  6. A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’
  7. Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others
  8. Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  9. A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History of God
  10. An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated
  11. Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  12. Restlessness, recklessness, and impulsiveness
  13. 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
  14. Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy

If some of the symptoms can be found also among the symptoms of anti-social personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, the symptoms 5, 6, 10, 12, and 13 are unique.

There is very few research on the dark side of transformational or charismatic leadership, Hubristic Syndrome being the major dark side and the one with the most dangerous consequences for the respective leader’s environment. Particularly in the current age of uncertainty and unpredictability and thus constant crises, hubristic leaders flourish deceiving with their charisma people who are scared and do not wish to think critically and independently or are unable to do so due to their limited erudition. Such leaders are strongly interested in containing man-made volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or the abbreviation VUCA born in military circles and then adopted by the business world (Kinsinger, P., & Walch, K., 2012)). Fuelled by the drug of power, hubristic leaders spread the cancer of their unsaturated ego among their organizations, communities, and countries. Maybe the time has come to become cautious about transformational and charismatic leadership, which was born for good but seems to be increasingly abused. If something derails too strongly out of balance in nature, it often leads to natural disasters. Let’s not let it arrive at the point of no return.



  • Antonakis, J. (2012). Transformational and Charismatic Leadership. The Nature of Leadership. pp. 256–289. Los Angeles: Sage.
  • Antonakis, J., Bastardoz, N., Jacquart, P., & Shamir, B. (2016). Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-measured Gift. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 3. Retrieved from
  • The British Psychological Society. (2017). Psychology at work: Improving wellbeing and productivity in the workplace. Leicester: The British Psychological Society. 
  • Garrard, P. (Ed.). (2018). The Leadership Hubris Epidemic: Biological Roots and Strategies for Prevention. London: Palgrave McMillan.
  • Garrard, P., Rentoumi, V., Lambert, C., & Owen, D. (2013). Linguistic biomarkers of Hubris syndrome. Cortex. pp. 1–15. Retrieved from 
  • Jonas, K., Stroebe, W., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Sozialpsychologie. Berlin: Springer.
  • Kinsinger, P., & Walch, K. (2012). Living and Leading in a VUCA World. Retrieved from
  • Mhatre, K. H. & Riggio, R. E. (2014). Charismatic and Transformational Leadership: Past, Present, and Future. In Day, D. V. (Ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199755615.013.012
  • Owen, D. (2006). Hubris and Nemesis in Heads of Government. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 99(11). pp. 548–551. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.99.11.548
  • Owen, D. & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years. Brain, 132(5), pp.1396–1406. Retrieved from
  • Rodgers, C. (2011). Hubris Syndrome: An emergent outcome of the complex social process of everyday interaction? Retrieved from
  • Tourish, D. (2018). Dysfunctional Leadership in Corporations. In Garrard, P. (Ed.), The Leadership Hubris Epidemic: Biological Roots and Strategies for Prevention (pp.137–162). London: Palgrave McMillan.

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Natalia Braun
Natalia Braun, MSc in Psychology from the University of Derby, UK, member of The British Psychological Society (BPS, MBPsS), Certified Assessor BPS TUOA & TUOP, Certified Professional Coach, Certified Gestalt Coach. Member of the International Society of Critical Health Psychology (ISCHP) and American Psychological Association (APA, International Affiliate). Natalia spent over two decades in change, human resources and communications management in international companies as well as journalism before transitioning into professional psychology. She lives in Switzerland and provides applied psychological services and workplace health consulting as well as career counseling in her private practice along with continuing engagement in research, dance, and embodiment.
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