Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Malignant Leadership

A. The Mastermind: Malignant Narcissism

The syndrome of malignant narcissism, originated by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, has been widely used by political psychologists to characterize leaders who pose a threat to civil society, political stability, and world order.

It is plausible that the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 acts of terrorism at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC -- be it Osama bin Laden or someone else -- fits this profile.

The core components of the syndrome are pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrained aggression.

1. Pathological narcissism

* extraordinary self-confidence
* self-absorption
* grandiosity
* lack of capacity to empathize with others' pain and suffering

2. Antisocial features

* lack of social conscience
* motivated by self-interest
* lack of a stable set of core beliefs or deeply held convictions

3. Paranoid outlook

* siege mentality
* tendency to create foes and antagonism
* invoke real or imagined enemies to justify aggressive acts

4. Unconstrained aggression

* cold
* cynically calculating
* ruthless (often behind a public mask of civility and idealistic concern)

B. The Medium: Puritanical Compulsion

The syndrome of puritanical (i.e., fundamentalist) compulsiveness, described by personality theorist Theodore Millon, is less well known among political psychologists. These individuals are “austere, self-righteous, [and] highly controlled.” Their “intense anger and resentment . . . is given sanction, at least as they see it, by virtue of their being on the side of righteousness and morality.” (Theodore Millon, Disorders of Personality, 1996, p. 520)

The world of puritanical compulsives is dichotomized into good and evil, saints and sinners—and they arrogate for themselves the role of savior. They seek out common enemies in their relentless pursuit of mission. Puritanical compulsives are prone to vent their hostility through “sadistic displacements” and their “puritanical’s wrath becomes the vengeful sword of righteousness, descended from heaven to lay waste to sin and iniquity.” Of greater concern in politics, puritanicals instinctively seek ever-greater degrees of fundamentalism, “because literalism makes it much easier to find someone who deserves not only to be punished but to be punished absolutely.” (Theodore Millon and Roger Davis, Personality Disorders in Modern Life, 2000, p. 178)

This kind of flaming righteousness is often rooted in a caring but controlling, virtuous but moralistic upbringing. Such child-rearing practices can breed adults who “displace anger and insecurity by seeking out some position of power that allows them to become a socially sanctioned superego for others,” whose “swift judgment . . . conceals a sadistic and self-righteous joy.” (Millon and Davis, cited above, p. 184)