Back in ancient Greece, Alcibiades was telling Pericles how Athens should be governed.
Annoyed by the young man's tone and manner, Pericles said, "Son, when I was your age, I talked just the way you are talking."
Alcibiades looked Pericles in the face and replied, "How I should like to have known you when you were at your best."
Ah, the arrogance of youth. To put the story in context, Pericles is often referred to as "the first citizen of Athens" for his many achievements: his promotion of art and literature, his championing of democracy, and his sponsorship of an ambitious building project that included most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon. Alcibiades, on the other hand, was also a statesman and orator, but his encyclopedia entry is only a few lines.
And in the dictionary, Alcibiades could define "hubris."
Hubris means extreme haughtiness, exaggerated pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power.
As I've written many times before, arrogance is one of the deadliest of human failings and can destroy a business or a career.
Today's headlines illustrate hubris to the extreme: the disgraced governor of Illinois trying to defend his actions ... the CEO of BP complaining just days after the oil rig explosion and resulting massive oil spill that he wanted his life back ... the teenage "barefoot bandit" who was finally captured three years into a crime spree after he crashed a stolen airplane.
All are examples of losing touch with the real world, of assuming they were above scrutiny and that somehow their actions were acceptable. Because all had enjoyed a measure of success, they assumed people would give them a pass. They had hubris.
What a difficult lesson they all learned. They confused confidence with arrogance. Confidence in one's ability is a critical element in the willingness to take risks while still steering the ship. Arrogance takes risks by assuming everyone will get on board even when the boat has a hole in it.
How do you know when you're getting arrogant? When the only people you care to listen to or deal with are either at your own level or above it.
BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg added fuel to the oil-spill fire with his comment that, "We care about the small people."
Whether lost in translation or arrogance personified, his language managed to insult the people he purported to care about.
He could have benefited from the advice of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. He said, "If we ever get carried away with how important we are because we're a great big $50-billion chain -- instead of one store in Blytheville, Ark., or McComb, Miss., or Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- then you can probably close the book on us."
As the saying goes, nothing is so hard to do gracefully as getting off your high horse.
Mackay's Moral: Hubris is an odd affliction. It makes everyone else sick.