Narcissism and leadership
Unhealthy narcissism has become increasingly widespread in Indian politics and must be curbed
Obsessed with celebrity-culture, people often post selfie-type pictures on social media, put up flexi-banners with their photos even for small events like birthdays, retirement functions, etc., apart from marriages and political programmes when there would be huge posters and cut-outs – all to gain self-importance and celebrity status, albeit momentarily. Although such a state of mind is often loosely branded as 'narcissism', the term is primarily meant for those who seem excessively vain. Since a leader is considered as the epitome of this representation, a closer examination would help us in forming opinions.
Originating from Greek mythology, in which the young Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, narcissism is excessive selfishness. Social scientists place it on par with psychopathic behaviour and Machiavellianism, which are psychological deviations. Drawing from the historical concept of megalomania, Sigmund Freud introduced this term to describe someone who is in pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's idealised self-image and attributes and is driven by a personal egotistic need for power and admiration. It has now become an oft used tag.
It is said, Narcissus has replaced Oedipus as the myth of our time, to be at the root of everything from the ill-fated romance with violent revolution to the enthralled mass consumption of state-of-the-art products and the 'lifestyle of the rich and the famous'. Some critics contend that pop culture has become more narcissistic. Celebrities hiring 'fake paparazzi', the frequency with which 'Reality-TV' programmes populate the television schedules and the growth of an online culture in digital and social media, and the "will-to-fame", are all generating a new era of public narcissism that is mutating with new media forms. Thus, narcissism, rather than being the pathologised property of a discrete personality type, has become a constituent cultural feature of an entire generation. It is more so when it comes to leadership.
One is enamoured by the fantastical, flattering self-image created by leaders. And, common people, with shakier self-esteem are much more impressed with the leader's magnetism, charm, confidence, enthusiasm, extroversion, dominance, and attractive charismatic vision, and help in propelling him to power. Although some of them are effective leaders, little does one realise that these are the characteristics of a narcissistic personality. Narcissists are thus emerging as leaders across the globe.
Studies have established that many powerful leaders manifest the narcissistic personality traits of grandiosity, arrogance, egocentrism, overly positive self-views, sense of entitlement, fragile self-esteem, antagonism, lack of empathy, exploitativeness and more importantly, are motivated by their needs for power and admiration; the priority of such leaders is themselves. Although some of them are very good leaders, there is also a constant danger lurking around. Once they are in power, such leaders are likely to become pathological narcissists and abuse their power to become terribly effective and evil, adversely impacting those they lead. Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarek, the list goes on and on. Indira Gandhi, Trump, and Modi could also be in the race.
Narcissistic leaders mesmerise people with their moving speeches to achieve their ambition to take over the world and create an empire and leave behind a larger than life legacy. Since many of them are ruthless and not high on conscience, they have no compunctions about using even unethical means in their relentless pursuit of victory. And in order to maintain their self-perceived image of perfection, they indulge in distortions and illusions; externalise blame for their own failures and mistakes, while usurping credit for others' success. Failure to comply with their instructions and view-points is considered an affront to their superiority and defiance is a strong injury and is met with rage. They employ the methods of grandiosity and spinning self-glorifying fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance and attractiveness to confirm their superiority since they always believe they are unique. Further, they show disinterest in listening to others in order to ward off criticism. If yet there is dissent, they heap insults without remorse.
Freud found that while healthy narcissism is an essential part of normal development but when it is in higher doses, it turns into a pathological narcissistic personality disorder. In psychological terms, people with NPD are in love with an idealised, grandiose image of themselves, since it allows them to avoid deep feelings of insecurity. And, in order to prop up their delusions of grandeur, they adopt every means possible, where dysfunctional attitudes and behaviours come in. Clinical theorists see this destructive NPD as an outcome in response to traumatic childhood interaction, undercutting true sense of self-esteem and social learning.
In contrast to a destructive narcissist, a healthy narcissist has a vision which people believe in, he invites ideas and opinions and is mostly guided by values in his plans and actions, and ultimately does not crave for power and grandiosity. But, such productive leaders who are confident, assertive and driven to achieve, unless checked, could
slip over to become destructive narcissists, who in time would degenerate to malignant narcissists. Unfortunately, there are no clear treatment strategies for NPD, neither medication, nor psychotherapy. People have no escape.
A conscious and closer examination would tell us that, in India, right from a petty leader at the gram panchayat level, political leaders possess the narcissistic traits in abundance. Everyone is obsessed to see his photos, posters, banners and cut-outs in every corner of his place of prominence. Impressing people with their charm and oratory skills, and by the use of every ethical and unethical means possible, they rise to power. And, once they reach there, their conduct is that of a king, arrogant and feeling entitled to the subordination of his constituent people. Let us take a few examples.
Chandrababu Naidu, as CM, was known for his grandeur at public cost. Using bundles of lies he came to power and looted the state with his nexus with land, sand, mining, liquor mafias, etc. His sense of false superiority, arrogance, and compulsive need for power at any cost confirms his traits of pathological narcissism. Jayalalithaa and Mayawati too, belong to the same category.
Then, we have powerful leaders like Indira Gandhi and Modi. The former had inherited power to become a healthy narcissist initially. She was then a strong leader with the best of intentions in the beginning. But, history reveals, how in grabbing power, imposing emergency, bridling the Constitution, goring Human Rights, etc., she transformed herself into a pathological narcissist. As things have unfolded in the past few years, Modi too belongs to the same genre.
People voted Modi to power in 2014 because of his charisma, oratory skill and a grand vision. However, he did not keep any of his promises. The Gujarat model that was much touted was false as CAG found that in human development index, it was the lowest in performance. Then, being not a good listener, he did not participate in any debates and discussions as required in a democracy. Instead, there was one-sided rhetoric through Mann Ki Baat. When his plan to enforce demonetisation to kill black money in the country caused great hardships in terms of closure of businesses and small scale industries, alongside the loss of millions of jobs, he did not feel any empathy for people. He considers himself as an entitled one by treating others as being there only to serve him, as proven in his decimation of RBI, CBI, SC and all other institutions, including the media, and using them to target the opposition. Like a confirmed pathological narcissist, he tried to grab credit for scientific achievements, although the foundation was laid by Nehru and others, and for all his failures, he tried to discredit the past leaders so that his image as a perfect leader remains intact. In the country and in international forums, he speaks about curbing corruption, while shielding the corrupt and fraudsters, like in the matters of Yedyurappa, Mukesh Ambani and others who are involved in huge corruption and cheating cases. Furthermore, unethical and corrupt practices like engineering political defections have become rampant. And now in his second term, Kashmir, CAA, have taken prominence, pushing agrarian crisis, all-time low of unemployment, slow down of industry, etc., to the back seat. He does not even think of commiserating with people. For him, it is only his ambitions and power that matter.
Most of our leaders are similarly placed pathological narcissists, exceptions being rare. Since their traits cannot be changed, people have to bide for time to change them. One only wishes that at least the two honest and potential national leaders – Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal will not fall prey to the trappings of power and success and would remain healthy narcissists.
The writer is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal