In this crisis, when we want immediate solutions and a rapid an end to our severe anxiety, the narcissist leader or savior has taken a pivotal role.
What is narcissism? That is a complex question. In psychoanalytic thinking, narcissism is a fact of human existence. Narcissism is on spectrum from healthy self-love to a pathological condition where people’s relationships with themselves and others are rooted in egoism, conceit, vanity or plain old selfishness.
We are all narcissistic to one degree or another. Healthy narcissism is the origin of self esteem and the source of confidence that allows us to achieve our goals. At the level of pathology, narcissism leads to selfishness, greed, and grasping for power.
As we look at the economic situation in the US and globally, much has been written about the unjust economic systems, but we often ignore the psychology of these systems and those who drive these systems. We ignore these important factors at our own peril.
I want to reflect on two important psychology factors in power structures of these economic and corporate systems. The first involves people with pathological levels of narcissism who are in power and the second about the psychology those of us who put them in power.
To the first point, is it no surprise that some of the most powerful people in the history of the world have had very high levels of narcissism. When we think empire building and genocide names like Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Kim Jong-il, surface and their narcissism is very apparent. If you read books about such successful business leaders at Donald Trump, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, the narcissist issues don’t require and explicit explanation, the concepts seem jump off the page.
When an intelligent, well spoken person is also a narcissist, they desire power and have the talents to achieve it. Narcissists can inspire people. They are charismatic. The problem is, for people with pathological levels of narcissism the good of others or an organization as whole is secondary, if it is even a priority at all. The pathologic narcissist uses the ideals of helping others and moving an organization forward as means to gather personal power. Yet, in a crisis situation, they are seen by others (and most certainly by themselves) as courageous and possessing strength to act. These are people who can cut budgets, jobs, and programs far more easily than others. Their self-focus means that the effect their decisions have on others or on the long term picture don't concern them as much as it might people with healthy levels of narcissism. They may be strong leaders, but they are very poor team builders. They are top down people who rarely listen to others and only value those who affirm them. This is because inside these are people who are frightened and insecure. They need constant affirmation and do not see dialogue or challenges are constructive, they see them as threats. Narcissistic leaders don’t work with or learn from those that might disagree with them, they eliminate them.
The second psychological factor is the motivation behind those who bring narcissists to power. In times of crisis, like the economic crisis we are all currently in, we want quick, comfortable solutions. At a very deep level, we want someone to take power and "fix" things right away. We want a stern powerful mommy or daddy to take control. We want our anxieties to go away, even if it means we will be punished. In a severe crisis, like the one we are in now, at some point, we want the anxieties to go away more that we want to look at long and hard at difficult issues. In our weakness and insecurity, the narcissistic leader attracts us. We can hand them power and believe that s/he can be our savior. As long as we accept and empower her/him, we are off the hook. We no longer have to be anxious and have the added bonus of not having to act. Our belief, our faith in the leader is enough, we have little to do, we empower them do the dirty work, and we stop caring how they do it.
This second factor is perhaps the most dangerous to our souls. In the extreme, we give up our power, and release our connections to our problems out of fear and anxiety. Charming, power-hungry narcissists have always existed, but they do not always become powerful leaders in organizations and societies. Our own primitive fears and insecurities lead us to invest in the wrong people in times of crisis.
We have to learn to deal with our fears and with our big and complex problems in realistic ways. Fast painful solutions seldom work in the long term. The narcissistic leaders we have put in power, be s/he the CEO of an organization or the dictator of a country, can make us feel better, yet all the while taking power for themselves and destroying soul of the organizations/countries they were empowered to save. All of these organizations who have hired these pit bulls to "save them" may or may not survive, but very often end up becoming organizations far different than they ever intended. How many alternative voices were silenced by the narcissistic leader in her/his rise to power? How much do people who remain in such organizations feel hopeless, silenced, and disempowered? How many programs have been eliminated so that the organization no longer lives up to its purpose, goals or mission?
During the 2008 election, Michelle Obama as heavily criticized for statements she made implying that under the presidency of George W. Bush it was hard to be proud to be an American. To me, the future first lady was reflecting the sentiments of many in this country who realized we had elected a narcissistic leader in W who greatly damaged this country because his own narcisstic issues. The same can be said of dictators around the world, capitalist, communist, etc. The economic systems of the world are in flux. We are entering a time when we realize that extreme forms of capitalism and communism have failed. We are entering a time when cheap petroleum-based energy sources can no longer give us the illusion of cheap endless energy. We are scared and panicked. One of the questions we have to ask ourselves is do we have the courage, maturity and strength to elect leaders who will have long term visions and solutions that won't fix things right away? Will we have courage make democracy and dialogue, which can be clunky, time consuming and just plain difficult, essential ingredients of our future leaders and power structures? Will continue to choose to empower pathological narcissists to be our leaders? Will we grow beyond the need to create leaders who will temporarily sooth our anxieties and bring us brief comfort all the while destroying our souls, taking our power, alienating us from one another and killing the heart of the good we want our companies, organizations and governments to do?
Let's keep protesting, keep occupying, keep trying to change or destroy broken institutions, but let's also look at our own fears and anxieties. Let's listen to each other and look at who we invest with our trust and our power. Let’s occupy narcissism and take its power away.