One of the most important lessons President Barack Obama and his minions must learn as they bask in political success is that humiliation follows hubris – sometimes quickly.
It didn't take long for the sparkle of Camelot ignited by the vigorous young President John F. Kennedy to become a reeking smudge pot of humiliation stoked by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Young Kennedy was determined to rush ahead into a summit with Khrushchev despite top advisors' concerns. Dean Rusk, who would become Kennedy's Secretary of State, had opined prior to his appointment that "these two men should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them." George Kennan, who had negotiated often with the Soviets, said it was much too soon to conduct a high-level meeting, that much groundwork was needed, performed by lower-level staff.
But Kennedy, hubris-intoxicated, pressed on.
The meeting in Vienna in June 1961 resulted in Kennedy's humiliation as wily old Khrushchev made him look like the novice he was. History would remember the summit "as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age," wrote Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins in The New York Times op-ed titled, "Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed."
Kennedy, who penned Profiles in Courage, might have reflected on the humiliation of perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, just a decade before Kennedy's election.
Churchill in 1945 had the world by the tail. He had beaten Der Fuhrer, saved Britain –
which a mere five years earlier seemed to be about to go ignominiously down the Nazi craw – refashioned Europe and millions of lives with his allies Roosevelt and Stalin, sketched on an envelope the profile and destiny of the Middle East, and had a clear vision for European unity, as well as the design of the rest of the world in case anybody asked.
All he had to do was get re-elected as British Prime Minister. To Churchill's immense disappointment, British voters shuffled their great leader out of office. Domestic issues were a greater concern than Churchill's hubris-stoked internationalist aspirations.
"It may well be a blessing in disguise," said Clementine, Churchill's war-weary wife, of her husband's political collapse. "At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised," gruffed the rejected great one.
Apparently, to Churchill's mind anyway, not even God knew how badly the British Empire and the world needed Winston as post-war Prime Minister. Churchill withdrew into one of his "black dog" depressions, but got over the humiliation and went on to fight his way back to political victory in 1951, when he was elected again as Prime Minister.
The glimmer had dimmed, however, and Churchill, who had once vowed never to preside over the dismemberment of the British Empire, found himself doing just that. The nation once afloat in hubris as its Empire extended across the globe went through its own humiliation as the glory-days faded. And Churchill was at the helm.
The mother of all humiliated-leader-stories is that of a Middle Eastern peacock whose splendor got cracked in front of a whole muster of clucking sycophants. A delegation from Tyre and Sidon, cities needing to stay hooked to King Herod's welfare, came to grovel before the haughty ruler, who was miffed with them.
Herod frocked himself in the most spectacular garb possible, and ascended to his throne where he droned out a speech. Hubris no doubt swam through the potentate's soul as the quivering fawners cried, "The voice of a God and not of a man!"
Acts 12:23 describes the blitz of Herod's humiliation in blunt terms: "And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died."
It's bad enough to have slimy crawlers feast on your innards, but to have the strategic moment of the big bite in front of adoring masses has to be the epitome of humiliation. One doesn't want to contemplate what Herod's hubris-revealing robes looked like at that moment.
Why is humiliation so often the sequel to hubris? Mathew Hayward, who characterizes himself as "a student of destructive egos," pondered that dynamic. He studied CEOs who led their companies to spectacular failures, and wrote a book, Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris Is Wrecking Companies and Careers and How to Avoid the Trap.
In a review, the Denver Post's Al Lewis noted "the paradox of success" is that the "very traits that launch people to the top… can also send them to the bottom."
But, as many have learned, humiliation may be the best place for a previously hubris-afflicted leader. Those who get over hubris and humiliation have the willingness and courage to go on to the next stage – honesty.
That begins the recovery that leads to hope. And everyone down the chain can breathe again.