Psychotic leadership – An inherent snag?

Thursday, December 30th, 2010 at 4:16 am
by Borg

“De Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives, who do not know what they want, want what they do not want, do not want what they want, and it is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian élite…that they can hope to survive and be saved. ”

Isaiah Berlin, on one of the founders of Conservatism in The Counter-enlightenment

What kind of people become leaders of nations? What kind of hurdles do they need to overcome and how does that affect them? What personality traits are required to overcome them? What compromises do they need to make on their path? What view of man do the have? Even in so called democratic countries are those that are elected to represent the people actually normal? These are not meant to be rhetorical questions but express a genuine quandary I have, one to which I do not have an answer, only a hunch. We see ourselves in our leaders, and the way they think and talk creates the mindset we live in. They tell us how the world is and who is good and who is bad. But what if they are not like us at all, and the way they see the world is only one of many ways of making sense of it? Why would they not just be normal people, you might ask, anybody can take up politics in an open and democratic society. Maybe that is true, but what if it is virtually impossible for an ordinary decent person – however talented or driven – to reach the top of any political or corporate institution, and still be that same ordinary and decent person? What if it doesn´t even occur to them to try?

Ignoring for the time being dictatorships, nepotism, Mafioso states, theocracies and the like, is it possible for democratic countries to produce sane leaders with untied hands? I think there are systemic, practical, Darwinian and psychological reasons why this seems really quite tricky. Firstly let me clarify that I have little patience for leftist and anarchistic conspiratorial thinking where any person in a position of authority by default is seen in a dubious and sinister light. I am not reaching my conclusions based on some socialist affinity with the working class, nor based on any pubescent revolt against every type of authority. I am convinced we need authorities and hierarchies, but I think we need to be on guard against the imperfections that come with those systems. Rulers are not born evil. I think everybody is born at street level, and because we are all pedestrians nobody has a bird´s eye view of the world. If you are born into aristocracy I would not blame you for drinking from the goblet of narcissism and breath the supremacist air just as little as I blame religulous people for believing in the myths they have been born into or a drug dealers´s son becoming a delinquent. You are born into a certain conceptual sphere, you realize the rules and some people see angles others don´t. It is the dynamic structures we are born into that foster certain individuals to excel and others to fade into the background.

Historical Leaders

“A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules…”

In his classic survey of historical leaders and what made them great Machiavelli has plenty of practical advice to dispense, ranging from how best to invade a country with least effort (by only killing all of the ruling family and leave all taxes and laws the same, so that ordinary men notice little difference), to how to run colonies and who to make friends with and who to crush. He is even-handedly and pragmatically treating all paths by which men rise to power. In talking about rulers who have taken over power by “wickedness” he recounts this maffiaesque scene where Oliverotto da Fermo encourages his uncle Giovanni – who raised him – to invite all the noblemen of the city Fermo to a dinner party.

“Oliverotto gave a solemn banquet to which he invited Giovanni Fogliani and the chiefs of Fermo. When the viands and all the other entertainments that are usual in such banquets were finished, Oliverotto artfully began certain grave discourses, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, and of their enterprises, to which discourse Giovanni and others answered; but he rose at once, saying that such matters ought to be discussed in a more private place, and he betook himself to a chamber, whither Giovanni and the rest of the citizens went in after him. No sooner were they seated than soldiers issued from secret places and slaughtered Giovanni and the rest.”

He can hardly suppress his admiration for his cunning courage, but notes that in the end it did not afford Oliverotto a lasting principality as he got strangled after a year. He laments this and attributes it to “severities” (i.e. cruelties) not being properly used. Ultimately you have no power unless you get people to obey you, and his is a timeless study of how to achieve that. More recent examples of these principles being employed can be seen in Saddam´s way of taking power over the Iraqi Baath party in 1979.

Iraq’s 1979 Fascist Coup as narrated by Christopher Hitchens

This is very rare footage which was removed from YouTube the minute after I manage to download it. Because it is so extraordinary I decided to host it myself.

Donald Rumsfeld offering American support in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

It would appear neither Oliverotto or Saddam was in any capacity what we would consider normal people. Erich Fromm´s classic study The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness offers deep and penetrating analysis of how these personalities are shaped from childhood experiences. This seems chillingly illustrated in the sadism found in Saddam´s son Uday Hussain who practised rape as a hobby.  Other similar recent Arabic examples are Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, son of Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE, who was acquitted in January, 2010 of torturing a rice merchant  in spite of having had it filmed himself. Or the Saudi prince Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud who sex murdered his servant in a London hotel in February, 2010. These are sadistic and twisted men who cannot deal with the absolute power they enjoy.

The Power of Nightmares

But my thesis is not just that twisted men often become leaders but that men with a twisted view of man in general tend to resort to violence and therefore excel more efficiently under certain circumstances than men with a more humanistic and optimistic outlook. In The Counter-enlightenment Isaiah Berlin discusses the view of Joseph de Maistre, who next to Edmund Burke, is considered a founding father of Conservatism. Fundamentally man is an irrational beast prone to aggression. Education can never hope to change this and the appeal to reason is pitiful. This view risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone feels threatened they are dramatically more prone to resort to violence.

“Reason, analysis, criticism shake the foundations and destroy the fabric of society. If the source of authority is declared to be rational, it invites questioning and doubt./…/[T]he source of authority must be absolute, so terrifying, indeed, that the attempt to question it must entail immediate and terrible sanctions: only then will men learn to obey it./…/Not the luminous intellect, but dark instincts govern man and societies; only élites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education that is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom as, in this vale of tears, men can expect to have. But at the back of everything must lurk the potentiality of force of coercive power.”

To educate and foster a critically minded, information empowered society can never be the aim if you feel your authority would be undermined by it. Censorship, suppression, punishment of dissent, violence before reason these are hallmarks of fascist regimes, but are they not part of every political structure we know? Is democracy free of this? Who is censoring WikiLeaks and trying to bomb sense into the uneducated Afghanis right this moment?

The Nature of Hierarchies

Democratic systems depend on parties and their leaders that become nominated candidates of government. To become a nominated candidate you first need to have an active and personal interest in politics. Wham! Immediately we have eliminated a massive chunk of the consumerist population. Politics was something our parents did in between getting stoned in the 60ies. Being born in the mid 70ies I have no experience of party life, but I assume that to rise in status there must have comparisons with how people advance in corporate structures. Partially promotions depend on financial achievements, but why networking has become  such a crucial feature of modern business life is partly because people chose to work with people they like, not necessarily the people best at what they do. There are irrational motives – or rather not strictly financially justified reasons – why people advance.

You make alliances, strategically exchange favours whilst keeping your cards close to the chest. For instance, someone who cannot be diplomatic is unlikely to succeed as he would spill the beans once to often. To advance in a corporate structure you need to be able to keep secrets and better yet, to twist the facts if need be. If you are a truth teller and an obsessively honest and evidence based person you will remain in the research department. Political parties depend on a unanimous front. Everybody in the party must concede their personal opinions in favour of those of the party line. You apparently do not win a debate by admitting what you do not know. Thus insincerity, discretion and secrecy are a core qualities.

Do nice people become senior members of staff? As a though experiment imagine you have two people: One person who is careful and considerate, for whom genuine empathy and social awareness is important, and another who is unscrupulous, careerist with no remorse regarding walking over dead bodies to get to his goal. In a competition to reach the top who do you think would win? Would a profit making corporation employ the tender hearted person as CEO? Companies exist to make money and sharks with teeth keep them afloat. To what extent are parties like companies? I do not know, but I know that Big Business run our democratic societies with enormous power – only they are not elected.

Enter the Upper Echelons via the Lobby

While Obama tried to portrait himself as an ordinary but extraordinary person, do you really think he would have gotten to where he is without making massive concessions to USA Inc? Even though the West is democratic on paper there are all sorts of old and new power structures in place. There a powerful families and Big Business, all with their own agenda. Since any campaign in the US at least is vastly decided by financial support (did you even notice Ralph Nader was running again in the 2008 election?) you need to make promises to look after your financial contributors if you ever reach office. There are practical reasons like that which back ties the hands of anyone even with the best of intentions.

Executive Power

If there is one thing all political leaders historically seem to have in common it is an obsession with violence. Indeed the very definition of the State has been the monopoly of legitimate violence (Weber). Whether you are aspiring to rule in a country (or state) where the death penalty still exists or not, the obsession with war and the army is an inseparable part of political leadership. As a consequence, to be a leader you must be a person capable of taking someone else´s life, at whatever remove is convenient for you. People like to quote acts of soldiers in war as examples of how just about anybody is a cold bloodied murderer given the right circumstances. The fact that this is a widespread belief I see as a complete success of conservative propaganda and a the sign of a flawed analysis of the dynamics that lead to war. We cannot both be appalled by, and punish, the heinous acts of serial killers and at the same time believe it is as natural a part of human nature as enjoying friendships or making love. I insist that it is the fact that we are too socially sensitive and weak that leaders can make decent people commit murders that for some reason during so called war times are perfectly legal. It is the fear of punishment by those who are callous and managed to rise to power by any means necessary that coercively turn decent people into criminals. As in the law of the jungle, the lowest common denominator is the rule of the fist. Obama may seem suave, humorous, sensitive and cool, but he is still the one sending drone missiles to kill thousands of people. I will not argue about whether violence can be justified, but just want to highlight the often times overlooked extraordinary contradiction in the way we have organized society. The figurehead of cultural sophistication is also our principal executioner.

Maybe you don´t have to be a psychopath to become a leader, it just helps.

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5 Responses to “Psychotic leadership – An inherent snag?”

  1. Ideation » Blog Archive » On Censorship Says:

    […] « Psychotic leadership – An inherent snag? […]

  2. Andreas Borg Says:

    Einstein and Freud on war and leadership.
    “I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers.

    Political leaders or governments owe their power either to the use of force or to their election by the masses. They cannot be regarded as representative of the superior moral or intellectual elements in a nation. In our time, the intellectual elite does not exercise any direct influence on the history of the world; the very fact of its division into many factions makes it impossible for its members to co-operate in the solution of today’s problems.”
    Einstein to Freud

    “That men are divided into the leaders and the led is but another manifestation of their inborn and irremediable inequality. The second class constitutes the vast majority; they need a high command to make decisions for them, to which decisions they usually bow without demur. In this context we would point out that men should be at greater pains than heretofore to form a superior class of independent thinkers, unamenable to intimidation and fervent in the quest of truth, whose function it would be to guide the masses dependent on their lead. There is no need to point out how little the rule of politicians and the Church’s ban on liberty of thought encourage such a new creation. /…/ But surely such a hope is utterly utopian, as things are.”
    Freud to Einstein

    By the time the exchange between Einstein and Freud was published in 1933, under the title Why War?, Hitler, who was to drive both men into exile, was already in power, and the letters never achieved the wide circulation intended for them. Indeed, the first German edition of the pamphlet is reported to have been limited to only 2,000 copies, as was also the original English edition.


  3. Andreas Borg Says:

    UPDATE: 1 Sep, 2011
    New study conducted by the New York psychologist Paul Babiak supports my thesis. It suggests that one out of every 25 business leaders could be psychopathic.

    “We have identified individuals that might be labelled ‘the successful psychopath’.

    “Part of the problem is that the very things we’re looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic.

    “Their natural tendency is to be charming. Take that charm and couch it in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership.”

    Babiak designed a 111-point questionnaire with Professor Bob Hare, of the University of British Columbia in Canada, a renowned expert in psychopathy. Hare believes about 1% of Americans can be described as psychopaths.

    The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates.

    This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.

    Source The Guardian.

  4. Guy Says:

    The film of Saddam’s coup is chilling, and in that context one can see why Hitchens backed the invasion and occupation of Iraq. However it’s less clear why he seemingly continues to do so – it has hardly gone well, as many warned it wouldn’t, and it’s debatable whether it has helped the Iraqi people at all. Of course it was never meant to, even though it did have the happy side effect of getting rid of a psychopathic dictator.

    Another powerful psychopath was Idi Amin and it’s worth seeing the various documentaries about him, e.g. or the film The Last King of Scotland. He was both very charming and very violent which makes him a good case study for what you’re talking about.

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