Hubristic clients working with hubristic coaches – a rising issue


Hubris, Greek hybris, in ancient Athens, meant the intentional use of violence to humiliate or degrade. Today, hubris denotes overconfidence and arrogance, excessive pride or self-confidence.

Added on 01 September 2016 by Roger Delves

Hubris blog

Earlier this Summer, Ashridge hosted a conference on the topic of ‘hubris’ featuring names such as Lord Owen, Bill Critchley, Charlotte Sills, Alexandra Stubbings, Megan Reitz, John Higgins, Matt Nixon, John Neal and Erik de Haan, who added new layers in our understanding of the word ‘hubris’. How do we cope with hubris as coaches? We know clients can suffer from hubris, but can even coaches become hubristic or develop a hubris syndrome?

David Owen, a British politician of truly global pedigree, believes that hubris is a syndrome evoked by the ‘intoxication’ of power. Powerful leaders are often charismatic, very successful and aggressive. He points out that these behaviors can in many cases lead to an ‘acquired personality disorder’. Those leaders have been chosen to become CEOs because of their talent, are initially very successful but then, bewitched and intoxicated by power, fall victim to ‘hubris’ and fail as leaders. Nowadays, a great emphasis is placed on decisive personalities and single leaders on whom all our attention tends to focus – in positions of ultimate authority one thinks of Blair, latterly perhaps of Cameron. Within other parties, Farage and Nicola Sturgeon are examples. Blair’s ultimate hubristic moment may yet be seen to be the July 2016 Chilcot Report. However, sometimes, Lord Owen says, less charismatic but careful and thorough leaders show better results. Single leaders create an atmosphere against risk taking, against courageous leadership, against people with personality and charisma. They can potentially contribute to collective hubris where any disconfirming evidence is purposefully left unnoticed because it contradicts their beliefs, and therefore the company’s beliefs.  Single focus tends to lead to single truth, and in a VUCA environment, single truths are likely to be too simplistic to be either really true or really successful.

Elsewhere in 2014, David Owen gave a few examples of leaders who were hubristic but did not develop a hubris syndrome. One such example is US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. What saved him from developing the syndrome were his ‘toe holders’ (the person who brings the hubristic leader down to earth, who punctures the delusional thinking): Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt's closest advisors, and Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, the President’s private secretary, or his ‘real’ wife. Both Mr Hopkins and Ms LeHand dared to speak truth to power and their opinions were valued. Roosevelt referred to Ms LeHand as “The one person who (he) would always listen to”. 

What is our role as coaches? Be frank. It can’t and must not be to help, because helping only causes helplessness. Perhaps our desire to help is actually the way hubris manifests amongst us as coaches? Indeed, in coaches the desire to help can itself be hubristic when it is born of excessive self-confidence. Coaches need to be aware of their own ‘hooks’ and particularly how their own desire for an ‘idolizing transference’ may be triggered, says Charlotte Sills, Ashridge Executive Coach and Faculty. Coaches need courage to risk rupturing their relationship with ‘important’ clients rather than either pandering to them, being guilty of idolizing transference or of offering solutions based on their own sense of arrogant knowledge.

As coaches, we also need to listen. Can we recognize hubris in language?  Sometimes it is obvious, such as the use of ‘we’ (Thatcher), or use of the 3rd person in referring to ‘oneself’ (Trump), and sometimes it is less obvious. The ‘work’ is to help our clients find relative potency, which involves raising people’s awareness of what’s going on around them (moving them out of the bubble and into contact with context) and “seeing the person behind the hubris”, as John Leary Joyce, President of the Academy of Executive Coaching, says.

When a hubristic client is met by hubristic coach, we can be quite sure that coaching will be of little real value to our client. As David Owen says, ‘hubris is very important, because left unchallenged it can be dangerous.’

At Ashridge, we recognize the need to fill in the gap between coaching and hubris, and we understand that coaches are every bit as prone to hubris as any other leaders might be. We believe that coaches themselves should also be subject to coaching. We are therefore currently designing a program, a Diploma in Organizational Supervision, which aims to fill in the gap between coaches and hubris.