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To understand human endeavour, understand Hubris and Nemesis

In her book Signals, author Pippa Malmgren asks us to understand how the world economy works by going back to the ancient Greek concepts of Hubris and Nemesis.

Hubris is what happens to people when they overdo it. They succeed, and therefore they become overconfident. They think they have unusual powers. They imagine they are special and unique, and their judgement is all-powerful. They start taking risks mere mortals would shy away from, believing they are infallible.

That is when Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, arrives, sent from the heavens to teach over-reaching humans their limits. Hubris is the fire; Nemesis is the cold water that douses it. Hubris is very necessary in the economy; a few people do have to get carried away and sail into uncharted territory full of confidence. Nemesis is equally necessary; she keeps people real and allows us to learn the invaluable lessons of failure.

As a leadership advisor, I have told many a business leader to be mindful of the dangers of Hubris. They rarely listen. When they are on a roll and have delivered a few years of outstanding growth, they feel they are unstoppable. They only want to hear ‘positivity’ and only want to work with those with ‘can-do’ attitudes. Naysayers are wet blankets to them; doubters are timid folk who just don’t get it.

Think of the most hubristic statements you heard from business braggarts some years back. Then think about where some of those businesses are today. The problem with Hubris is it blinds you to danger and makes you reckless. Think also about today’s most arrogant voices. Give them a bit of time. Nemesis is watching.

When Nemesis strikes, much destruction is caused. Shareholders, employees and customers all suffer with the fallen leader. And yet, as William Blake told us, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Our excesses, or at least those of some of us, are necessary for the collective to learn.

The wisdom found in that palace is the understanding of context, and of the broader sweeps of history. The problem with many is that they are either natural optimists or natural pessimists. In reality, the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. It is both. It simultaneously a problem and an opportunity. Wise folks see the whole picture, not one part of it.

When someone is confident, we should never douse that assuredness. Confidence leads to good things – innovation, growth, achievement. We should merely help the confident person see pitfalls and gently steer them away from them. When someone is tentative, we should never ignore them. We should try to understand the source of their concern, coaxing them away from timidity but also understanding the potential dangers they may be pointing out.

A good leader knows when to invoke confidence and fly, and when to stay grounded. The bad one flies his team into the mountainside; or fails to take off when the ground itself is no longer safe. If you are going to innovate you will need both qualities. There is a time to be bold, and a time to be prudent.

Sadly, it is only after major crashes – of corporations and of economies – that wisdom dawns. Shareholders learn which hogwash not to believe; employees learn which lofty speeches were just hot air; citizens learn which growth policies actually lead to recession. These lessons are important. The human being does not seem to be gifted with much foresight; only plenty of hindsight. And so we are doomed to learn through failure.

Life is cyclical. There are periods of Hubris when we feel indestructible; followed by compensating periods of Nemesis when we lose our mojo. In economics, in business, in our careers and in our personal affairs – life is a rollercoaster. Step away and look upon it from afar: you will see the up-cycles and down-cycles in your own life. Some of this is caused by forces outside your control. Yet, if you look carefully you may also see that your actions when on the up caused the down to happen; and that your excessive reaction to the down phase prevented you from resuming your rise.

Be sceptical when everyone around you is cocksure; be hopeful when everyone around you has lost conviction. You will benefit from both situations, and ride them out.

(Sunday Nation, 2 October 2016)

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