Executive Hubris: The Case of a Bank CEO

23 Pages Posted: 1 May 2013 Last revised: 9 Oct 2016

Date Written: 2013


Purpose – Can personality traits of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) be detected at-a-distance? Following newspaper speculation that the banking crisis of 2008 was partly caused by CEO hubris, this paper analyses the CEO letters to shareholders of a single bank over ten years for evidence of CEO personality traits, including: (i) narcissism (a contributor to hubris), (ii) hubris, (iii) overconfidence and (iv) CEO-attribution. Following predictions that hubris increases the longer individuals occupy positions of power, the research examines whether hubristic characteristics intensify over time.

Design/methodology/approach – This paper takes concepts of hubris from the clinical psychology literature and applies them to discourses in CEO letters to shareholders in annual reports. The research comprises a longitudinal study of the discretionary narrative disclosures in the CEO letters to shareholders in eight annual reports, benchmarked against disclosures in the CEO letters to shareholders of the previous and subsequent CEOs of the same organisation.

Findings – Results point to evidence of narcissism and hubris in the personality of the Bank CEO. Over half the sentences analysed were found to contain narcissistic-speak. In 45% of narcissistic-speak sentences, there were three of more symptoms of hubris – what Owen and Davison (2009) describe as extreme hubristic behavior. In relation to CEO overconfidence, only seven (2%) sentences contained bad news. More than half of the good news was attributed to the CEO and all the bad news was attributed externally. The research thus finds evidence of hubris in the CEO letters to shareholders, which became more pronounced the longer the CEO served.

Research limitations/implications – The analysis of CEO discourse is highly subjective, and difficult to replicate.

Originality/value – The primary contribution of this research is the adaptation of the 14 clinical symptoms of hubris from clinical psychology to the analysis of narratives in CEO letters to shareholders in annual reports to reveal signs of CEO hubris.

Keywords: Discretionary narrative disclosures, Annual reports, Narcissism, Hubris, CEOs, Social psychology

JEL Classification: M41

Suggested Citation

Brennan, Niamh M. and Conroy, John, Executive Hubris: The Case of a Bank CEO (2013). Accounting, Auditing & Accountability, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 172-195 (2013), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2257441

Niamh M. Brennan (Contact Author)

University College Dublin ( email )

John Conroy

Independent ( email )

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