Psychopathology and Leadership
January 29, 2013
The emotionally healthy person seeks greater control over his life, display little interest in controlling others or being controlled by them. The evolved, self-reflective person may want to influence and encourage others, but is not likely to seek power or control over them. Because of this, people unwittingly abdicate positions of power in government and business to those who are emotionally “incomplete” who seek power as a means of compensating for their own insecurities. Once in positions of power, only the most emotionally healthy and resilient can avoid the slide into psychopathology. For those with some of the personality attributes of sociopathy or psychopathy, the descent into deeper pathology may be beyond their ability to resist. Even their followers can become pathologically dependent. Democracies characterized by individual freedom and liberty are rare. Throughout history, autocratic governments and tyranny have been the rule. Sometimes, it does indeed seem allow psychopaths to rule the world.
Healthy or Normal Personality
In its early beginnings, the field of psychology formed its roots in the study of psychopathology. Pioneers like Freud, Jung and Adler focused upon the cause and alleviation of the symptoms of psychological distress. Theorists were predisposed to define emotional health as the absence of significant psychopathology.
In the early 20th century, the predominately American-led field of Positive Psychology, spawned by the work of Abraham Maslow, began to explore the more optimal states of psychological health and functioning (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2009). Positive psychology is focused upon building upon the best qualities of people rather than the mitigation or elimination of pathology. According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology has three levels: subjective experience, the individual and the group.
Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk (2009) describe the focus of the subjective experience level is “well-being and satisfaction with the past, flow, joy, sensual pleasures, happiness in the present; constructive cognitions about the future—optimism, hope, faith”. The focus of the individual level is “positive personal traits, such as the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness, talent, wisdom”. The focus of the group level is “civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance and work ethic” (p.341).
There are many models for emotional health and they appear to be subjective and evolving. One operationalization is the measure of one’s positive feelings and positive functioning in life. A related branch of psychology, now referred to as hedonic psychology is concerned with the quality of life. In order to evaluate quality of life, several levels of analysis are often considered. These include “Cultural and social context: definitions of the good life; Subjective well-being: judgement, measurement; Other aspects of quality of life: values, capabilities, tasks; Persistent moods: temperament, disorders; Pleasures, pains, real time: retrospectively judged biological and social determinants; Transient emotions: subjective, physiological stress effects; Neural systems of emotion: reward, punishment anatomical, physiological, biochemical levels” (p.23) (Kahneman, Diener & Schwarz, 2003).
The individual with a “healthy personality” is often referred to as someone displaying subjective well-being (SWB) (Diener, Suh, Lucas & Smith, 1999). This concept is based upon a collection of an individual’s subjective experience and objective, behavioral criteria. Some of the key components of SWB are finding meaning, optimism, self-efficacy or agency and social support (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2009). According to Keyes (2002), positive functioning is determined by measuring the six dimensions of “self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy” (Keyes, 2002).
Furthering popularizing the research on optimal emotional health, Rath and Harter’s best-selling book, Well Being (2010) built upon decades of world research begun by George Gallup in the 1930s (Rath & Harter, 2010). Rath and Harter identified what they describe as five essential elements of wellbeing: career, social, financial, physical and community. People with high career wellbeing have the opportunity for regular vocational activities that fit their strengths and interests. People with high social wellbeing have close relationships “that help them achieve, enjoy life, and be healthy” (p.154). People with high financial wellbeing “manage their personal finances well and spend their money wisely” (p.154). They “buy experiences instead of just personal possessions, and they give to others instead of always spending on themselves” (p.154). People with high physical wellbeing “manage their health well” (p.155). They “exercise regularly, and as a result, they feel better” (p.155). People with high community wellbeing feel secure in, contribute to, and take pride in their community.
Wilson (1967) suggested an emotionally-healthy person is someone who is “extraverted, optimistic and worry-free”. He concluded the happy person is “well-paid, young, educated, religious, and married”. Diener et al. (1999) offer up a very subjective, situational description of happiness. They suggest the happy person is “blessed with a positive temperament, tends to look on the bright side of things, and does not ruminate excessively about bad events, and is living in an economically developed society, has social confidents, and possesses adequate resources for making progress toward valued goals”. Keyes (2002) describes the presence of mental health as “flourishing” and the absence of mental health as “languishing”.
The Social Context
Social cognitive theory connects the individual personality with the social context. Behavioral psychology suggests stimuli control behavior. However, the perceiver’s cognitive interpretations of stimuli determine behavior (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008). For example, an individual’s sensitivity to social cues influences self-regulation (Casey et al., 2011). George Kelly, one of the leading social cognitive theorists, maintained that personal constructs were the basic units of personality. Kelly created a cognitive theory of personality before the field of cognitive psychology emerged. (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008).
In the 1960’s, Albert Bandura suggested that observational learning, like classical conditioning and reinforcement, was an important learning process. In his now famous experiments with dogs, Ivan Pavlov demonstrated that a previously neutral stimulus, like a ringing bell, could become significant with paired with an existing significant stimulus like food. Bandura and others demonstrated that many common behaviors like table manners and interpersonal relations are learned through observation or a process called modeling. Learning through modeling requires no direct reinforcement (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008). Likely Bandura would agree with the Latin proverb, “The smart man learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns through the mistakes of others.”
The Dark Triad and Leadership
In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to the Dark Triad (Babiak & Hare, 2007; Hogan, 2006; Lee & Ashton, 2004; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks & McDaniel, 2011; Paulhus & Willams, 2002). The Dark Triad refers to the combination of the three maladjustment traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. While these three traits are very similar they are distinctive enough to justify independent description and analysis (O’Boyle et al., 2011). The common thread these traits seem to share is disagreeableness (Paulhus & Williams, 2002), one of the Big Five factors of Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience (Digman, 1990). Agreeable people are predisposed to altruism. They have a genuine concern and empathy for the interests of others (Judge and Bono, 2000).
Not so for those characterized by the Dark Triad. Machiavellians believe others are gullible and are unconcerned for their rights. This leads to manipulation. Narcissists’ aggrandized sense of self leads to self-promotion. The psychopath’s disregard for social norms leads to antisocial behavior. These conditions lead to diminished job performance and counterproductive work behavior (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).
“Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions with originate with a prince offend the individual only.”– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, p.59
Deriving its label from Niccolo Machiavelli’s the prescriptions for leaders described in his book, The Prince (2009), a Machiavellian personality is defined as someone displaying the interrelated of a belief in manipulation of others, a cynical attitude toward others and a moral outlook valuing expediency over principle. In short, the manipulative personality. Machiavellian personality types are often successful in their careers, especially in less structure environments. While they are more likely to be dishonest they do not frequently engage in extreme forms of antisocial behavior (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).
“Charming people live up to the very edge of their charm, and behave just as outrageously as the world allows.”—Logan Pearsall Smith, Afterthoughts, p.3
According to the DSM-IV, symptoms of narcissism include: “a grandiose sense of self-importance; overwhelming fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty or ideal love; a belief that they are special and unique and that they can only be understood by other individuals or institutions of similar superior status; an excessive need for admiration; a sense of entitlement; a propensity to exploit other to achieve their own ends; a lack of empathy towards others; a profound enviousness of other and a belief that others are envious of them and a tendency to show arrogant or haughty attitudes and behaviours”.
The narcissistic leader seeks power for personal objectives only (Ouimet, 2010). They use the resources of any organization they are associated with to garner the attention and admiration of others as a means of confirming their belief in their own superiority. Like Machiavellianism and psychopathology, one can display traits of narcissistic personality disorder without meeting the criteria for the formal diagnosis. Narcissists exaggerate their achievements and their contributions. Narcissists appear arrogant and self-promoting to others (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).
Two businessmen are walking together, each carrying a briefcase. ‘We’re only morally bankrupt,’ says one. ‘Thank God”, says the other.—From a cartoon by Bill Lee in Omni, p.84.
Being a psychopath or a sociopath refers to a specific set of personality characteristics determined to represent a specific form of psychopathology. Although both terms are widely-used in popular culture, the American Psychiatric Association’s primary diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health practitioners, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has no specific criteria for the diagnosis of sociopathy or psychopathy as a personality disorder.
Those characteristics laymen consider to represent sociopathy (“a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood”) are defined in the DSM-IV as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Those characteristics typically considered to represent psychopathy include those of ASPD but also include other characteristics of aggressive narcissism and socially deviant lifestyle. The Psychopathology Checklist Revised (PCL-R) is a clinical rating scale most often used to identify psychopathology. Almost all psychopaths are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are psychopaths (Hare, 1993).
Psychopaths are often described as people without conscience (Hare, 1993). While often portrayed in the media as Hannibal Lecter-like serial killers, most people with psychopathy seek to fulfill more common needs rather than commit gruesome murders. It is their “egocentricity, whim and the promise of instant gratification” (Hare, 1993, p.74) driving them to unethical, immoral or illegal activity not more heinous motives. Hare suggests there were two or three million psychopaths in the United States alone.
Typical people follow rules and laws out of fear of punishment, a rational appraisal of the probability of getting caught, an ideological perspective of good, social standards and empathy for others. Often psychopaths lack these emotionally-connected reflective thought processes and a diminished capacity for anticipating the consequences of their behavior. They shut down the “inner voice” in order to rationalize their behavior (Hare, 1993).
Psychopaths purposefully create positive first impressions that perform the function of social lures contributing to their manipulative power. They often display a disarmingly attractive physical appearance (Holztman & Strube, 2012). Targeting the vulnerable, they use their charm to engender trust through which they manipulate others (Hare, 1993). Of the three traits of the Dark Triad, psychopathy may be the most dangerous. Their predisposition for minimal anxiety combined with disagreeableness makes them more inclined toward antisocial behavior (Paulhus & Williams, 2002).
While some of the activities of executives of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco were criminal violations of law, and certainly many of the executives involved displayed psychopathic characteristics, and most perhaps were subclinical, not all psychopaths are criminal. In fact, one might consider the most “successful” psychopaths are those who operate sub criminally. While these people do not break criminal or civil law, they may indeed violate accepted moral and ethical standards (Hare, 1993).
Leaders and Followers
“For the autocrat’s only true subject is the man who will let himself be killed by him. This is the final proof of obedience and it is always the same.”—Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960, p.232.
Leaders begin as followers. As a follower, they form a framework or schema (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008) through which they evaluate their world. Ideas which contradict their world view are often interpreted as flawed and are rejected. Like Robespierre, influenced by Rousseau, they may rationalize horrors like the Inquisition in order to express their ideological faith. Influential leaders are often people of action not thought. Their strong convictions Reflective thought often leads to doubt and inaction (La Bon, 2002).
The study and discussion of leaders, followers, power and control spans centuries from ancient texts to more modern works of Machiavelli (1906) and Canetti (1960). Throughout history, despotic and tyrannical leaders have used coercive strategies and techniques as a means to oppress their followers. The oppressed internalize and accept the dependent image of them created by their oppressor and become afraid of freedom. By accepting this less powerful image, the oppressed are complicit in the creation of their oppression (Freire, 2000).
This dance between leader and follower is a delicate one. The impact of the leader’s personality upon the organization’s performance is impacted by the amount of discretion afforded the leader. When discretion is low, there is little relationship. When discretion is high, there is a strong relationship between leader personality and organizational performance. The best way to prevent abuse of power is to limit the leader’s discretion (Hogan, 2006).
Oppressive leadership can only survive when the leader is skilled boundary manager. If the oppression is taken to an extreme, there in no one left to lead. If it is not oppressive enough, it will not result in compliance (Kets de Vries, 2006). Machiavelli (2006) saw dictatorship as a transitional form of government on the way to democracy. Machiavelli and others who support his view fail to see that dictatorship almost always deteriorates into tyranny (Kets de Vries, 2006).
Potential for the abuse of power exists whenever people gather in groups. However it is during a formative or transformative period that despots seem to flourish. Throughout history, accomplished civilizations like the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Indian and Central and South American have turned their societies over to tyrants at one time or another (Kats de Vries, 2006).
In Escape From Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm suggests people may be attracted to totalitarian leadership precisely because the autocracy removes the anxiety associated with the risk of making a bad choice. Some willing relinquish personal discretion when choices are numerous, complex or difficult (Kets de Vries, 2006, Peterson, 1999).
In The Crowd, first published in 1895, Gustave La Bon (2002) suggests leaders are often people so driven by ideological faith they have almost lost the instinct for self-preservation. This ideological zeal enables them to appeal to the base instincts of followers who, through faith, may follow their leader along a path of self-destruction. This faith or ideology is the tool used by despots to gain and retain power. Through ideology, the tyrant expresses his narcissism and creates solidarity with followers. In order to sustain this fusion with followers, individuation and autonomous functioning are suppressed (Kets de Vries, 2006).
To the despotic leader with a Dark Triad personality, ordinary followers are simply cannon fodder for the political machine. The tyrant enforces compliance through the police, military and security apparatus to control the population. In order to maintain compliance the government devotes resources far out of proportion to the current situation to reinforce its reputation for toughness (Axelrod, 1984).
Terror becomes an end in itself (Kets de Vries, 2006). Indoctrination is accomplished by controlling cultural dialogue. The tyrant controls communication by controlling the flow of information. Acceptable topics of debate are limited. Honest debate is not allowed (Kets de Vries, 2006). By fostering strong ties to the state, the tyrant creates an illusion of solidarity among the followers while breaking original ties, compartmentalizing and limiting relationships among followers (Kets de Vries, 2006). Even the most powerful leader depends upon compliance from the majority of followers. Compliance is achieved by creating and enforcing rules that are expedient for the majority to follow (Axelrod, 1984).
In order to deflect criticisms of the state’s inevitable failures, the tyrant seeks scapegoats. Adolph Hitler blamed Germany’s failings on the Jews and Pol Pot blamed the educated elite for Cambodia’s problems. Everyone in the society suffer. The scapegoats suffer directly while those who observe suffer guilt from their failure to stop the oppression (Kets de Vries, 2006).
All Are Vulnerable
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”– John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
No one is immune to the dark side of power. For this reason, many believe no single individual should be in control of an organization or government. Strong checks and balances are necessary to prevent the abuse of power. “Power retained should always be a check to power conferred” (Kets de Vries, 2006, p.212). Despotic leaders often resort to “protective reaction” or preemptive strikes against those they suspect might want to overthrow them. These actions also serve to deflect followers’ attention from the problems created by the leader (Kets de Vries, 2006, p.212).
Tyranny often comes to power subtly and incrementally. Many accounts of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power suggest few world leaders or even the German people took him and the Nazi’s very seriously in the early years of his ascendency. Yet, while losing seats in the Reichstag in the November 1932 election, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Tyrannical governments often create or use conflict to seize power. The United States created the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the war in Vietnam in order to justify escalation of that conflict. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been an alarming consolidation of power in the United States. One of the reactions to the events of 9/11 was the passage of The Patriot Act in October of 2001.
The Patriot Act significantly expanded the powers of the federal government in areas of domestic surveillance and information sharing among intelligence gathering agencies and border security, among other expansions. Another government response to 9/11 was the consolidation of the US National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the US Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the US Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration into the Cabinet-level organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Few Americans can escape the effects of the Transportation Security Administrations (a department of the DHS searches at airports, train and bus stations and subway terminals.
The militarization of local law enforcement agencies has accelerated (Kraska, 2007) and the US Congress has approved the use of drone aircraft for domestic use. It’s widely reported drones can be outfitted with cameras, heat sensors, facial recognition systems and weapons.
On December 31 of 2011, President Barak Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2012. In addition to authorization funding for military expenditures, the 2012 bill jointly sponsored by Senators John McCain a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, included some very controversial provisions contained in Title X, Subtitle D, entitled “Counter-Terrorism”. In particular, sub-sections 1021 and 1022 which grants the President of the United States the power to order the US military to arrest and detain indefinitely, without due process, any American citizen the government suspects of terrorism (NDAA). The provisions are currently being challenged in the courts. The Obama administration is fighting the legal challenge.
It appears our own government, is using the events of 9/11 to increase its own power. As history has shown a people feeling vulnerable, will give up freedom for safety. Whether it’s an individual tyrant or a central government it seems the system evolves toward centralization and control. Without a well-informed and vigilant population those in power will seek to increase their power. A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin seems appropriate: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”
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