Monday, February 19, 2007


Why Leaders Make a Mistake, Can't Fix it and Won't Admit it.

A world leader can make a huge mistake such as leading their nation to an unjust war, then, after the reasons for the war are shown to be invalid, not be able to bring themselves to admit that the mistake that the war was wrong or be “big enough” to reverse policy and stop the war. Instead, they continue to maintain that the war was right all along, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They defend their error, fail to reverse course, and allow many more to die needlessly.

This happens often in history. One thinks of Napoleon’s foolish invasion of Russia. Hitler did the same a century later. One thinks of Vietnam. One thinks of Iraq.

Psychiatrists call it "narcissistic rage in leaders". It is direct evidence of a leader's fundamental psychological weakness--a damaged and fragile self-concept. But it can also lead to the destruction of individuals, groups, organizations, and even entire nations.

According to Drs. Mardi Horowitz and Ransom Arthur, leaders who exhibit narcissistic rage use "states of rage" to intimidate subordinates. That is, they use their anger, threats, and tyrannical tantrums to get their way. Narcissistic rage characterizes many historical figures, present world leaders, lesser politicians, corporate executives, heads of organizations, and even factory bosses.

Dr. Horowitz is the Director of the Center for the Study of Neuroses at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco and a professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco. Dr. Arthur is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles. Their classic 1988 study still stands as the definitive work on this topic.

They theorize that leaders prone to narcissistic rage have inner fantasies of having unlimited power (omnipotence) while they actually possess varying degrees of real power. Because they realize, on some psychological level at least, that it is their fantasies that are invariably greater, they become easily threatened when their power is in the slightest way challenged. Even a subordinate's hesitation in carrying-out a leader's command can be misinterpreted as a threat, thus triggering an angry outburst--a narcissistic rage.

Referring to the classic cases of Caligula, Nero, Hitler, and Mussolini, Drs. Horowitz and Arthur write that "we infer that their inner psychodynamics also involved a fundamentally damaged self-concept, and that this might be why any action which appeared to cast doubt on the leader's omnipotence was savagely punished."

They note, "because of this situation, all independent thinkers must eventually leave the inner circle of advisers of such leaders. They will tend to be replaced by individuals whose primary objective is keeping the leader pleased. In order to keep the leader serene, bad news, however true, is either not presented or is presented in such a way that a scapegoat other than the leader can be found and punished."

One immediately thinks of Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon during Watergate.

In fact, there is much evidence that the advisers of many of today's leaders do precisely this. In fact, John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. President who was allowed by his minders to read newspapers in their original. All U.S. Presidents since have been given selected newspaper clippings and news briefings by White House staff. One former White House insider claims that on many days, Ronald Reagan was given only the comic strips. And even these were "edited". For instance, he was not given “Doonesbury” whenever it was critical of him.

George W. Bush “browbeat” advisers to find a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Quieda when they continually found none.

Drs. Horowitz and Arthur further theorize that when a leader's narcissistic rage is triggered, the target of the rage is portrayed as "a hostile aggressor who might insult, injure, subjugate, or engulf the [leader's] self. Instead of fear of deflation, injury, or subjection, the manifest feeling is anger." They add, "all evil attributes are externalized and others, not the self, are blamed. The self becomes the aggressor and an attack on the other becomes justified by the bad intentions attributed to him."

Perhaps this helps to explain, among other events such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini's revengeful outrage at Salmond Rushdie. In Rushdie's THE SATANIC VERSES, a character similar to the Ayatollah is satirized unmercifully. Rushdie is still in hiding, afraid for his life.

Saddam Hussein becomes the receptacle in which is contained all evil. “He tried to kill my Daddy” is frosting on the cake of war justification. No matter that Hussein was once an ally.

But not only are individuals the victims of the narcissistic rage in leaders. Wars, genocide campaigns, and the devastation of nations can result. Millions can perish because a leader is plagued by a fragile self-concept and a profound, but continually denied, sense of inferiority. In a desperate attempt to satisfy an insatiable thirst caused by an internal weakness of the self, the narcissistic leader drinks the hopefully quenching waters of external power. However, in doing so the leader must forever guard the well--lest others steal one drop for themselves.

It is no wonder that Hussein, an abused and neglected child, extracts revenge upon his enemies with genocide against the Kurds and ruthless elimination of his rivals.

The narcissistic rage of leaders can be extremely destructive to any organization, business, or political group. In his 1921 essay, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego", Sigmund Freud partially described six phases of a group's behaviour after its leader exhibits narcissistic rage. Drs. Horowitz and Arthur have expanded on Freud's description. They write that at the end of the sixth phase, one of three scenarios results: "a) Ruination: The organization succumbs; b) Blood Bath: The leader removes most subordinates and starts over by a massive expenditure of his resources; c) Mutiny: The leader is removed, perhaps by a new hero who challenges and defeats him, and himself becomes the leader."

They observe, "The person who becomes a leader has usually done so in part because he has both extraordinary skills and ambitions for this goal. During his or her quest for power the person fantasized the pleasure he or she would experience in wielding it. To some extent, especially in those vulnerable to narcissistic rages, the pleasure may be in the relief of the chronic pain of a damaged self-concept and pervasive sense of inferiority."

Nevertheless, they ironically add, "When power is actually obtained by such individuals, it is found to be imperfect in relation to expectations. The majority of leaders weather such flies in the ointment of success in a mature manner, with wisdom and humor. Those leaders with vulnerable self-concepts cannot accept the disappointment, and strive for omnipotence."

Drs. Horowitz and Arthur observe, "What is so dramatically seen in the famous continues to be found at a more ordinary level of leadership and group process. Although injuring far fewer people than is the case with a head of state, narcissistic executives still impair institutions or individual lives through the destructiveness of bullying rages and their effects on group processes."

Our leaders are more fragile than they think.

Dr Stephen Jaun