Hubris, the Krypton of Leadership

April 8, 2016 by

“Hubris is one of the great renewable resources.” – P.J. O’Rourke, comedian, author

Hubris is defined as excessive pride or self confidence. In Greek tragedy, excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods can lead to “nemesis,” defined as divine punishment for wrongdoing or presumption.

Hubris is to leadership as krypton is to Superman. Anyone who’s spent any time as a leader has done debriefs on outages and projects gone bad. Root causes range from lack of testing to unmitigated risks, however underlying almost all business angst is hubris.

  1. “I’ve done this dozens of times before”…. said or thought before issuing a command implementing some technical change to an operating system, network router, or [insert technology componentry here]. Repeat after me: there is no change that is ever identical. None. Ever. Technology environments are changing constantly; patches, upgrades, usage patterns, integrations. Approach every change like it’s your first. Test plans, back out plans, a colleague to look over your shoulder. I’ve done a number of turnarounds, and every single one has required implementation of IT change management, after which operational outage frequencies dropped precipitously.
  2. “That has never happened here” …. said or thought before some massive unforeseen issue. Talk about tempting fate. The longer that something (power outage, cyber-hacking, your best developer leaving for a start-up) hasn’t happen, it increases the chance that it will. I remember to this day when dual power feeds (We have dual feeds! They’ve never failed!) failed to a data center early in my IT career; it went down hard, and we spent days recovering. I remember being on the phone with business managers in field offices who had dozens of employees doing …. nothing.
  3. “They’re fine with being down” …. said about a particular group of internal stakeholders. This is never, ever true. There is very little work that can be done without technology. I was at the airport recently and some system at the gate was down. The gate agents were manually dealing with boarding passes. The anxiety and stress on the faces of those gate agents was excruciating for me to look at – and we were delayed getting out. Employee disengagement, customer irritation.
  4. “Ugh, the audit department” …. said about internal audit. Auditors are a valuable asset – they will find risks and issues that you will never, ever find on your own. They are motivated by your institution’s success. I can’t count the times that auditors have found issues that have helped immeasurably to improve operations. The leader who doesn’t understand the value of audit should be viewed with suspicion.
  5. “I don’t need help” …. said by people who need help more than anyone. To a person, the people who have said that (yes, to my face) inevitably have some chewing-gum-and-baling-wire, unpatched, barely backed-up Franken-tech system of a server in a room with a 10-year old air conditioner wheezing away in a window. They scoff at contemporary practices like software development life cycles, enterprise architecture, and security policies. Shadow and distributed IT doesn’t bother me; bad IT bothers me – because institutions deserve better.

The #1 reason that CIOs and other leaders should watch for these and other signs of hubris is that they lead to barriers to innovation and realization of strategy. Outages and issues are distractions that delay projects and cause mistrust. Lack of attention to proper operational practices leads to grit in the machine that erodes efficiency and effectiveness.

In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare’s hubris leads to his defeat. He had all the abilities to succeed, but his arrogance led to failure. A lesson for leaders everywhere.


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