Anti-Empathetic Leadership on the Dark Side — the Big Three


Dead Salmon, Lolo Creek, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

One of the challenges when discussing bad leadership — or even disordered leadership–  is that it’s, quite obviously, a sensitive subject.  And the person one is accusing in being a bad leader typically doesn’t like it.  So I’ve decided to take a different tack.

Let’s discuss whom I call ‘The Big Three’ — the seminal tyrants from the mid 20th century.  All three did things that were, in short, amazing.  And all three did things that, regardless of the amazing things they did, turned out to be ultimately terribly destructive for the countries they led.

Who are the Big Three?  Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.  What is interesting to me is that each member of The Big Three embodied the manipulation forms of three of the most dominant negative personality-disordered leadership styles.  Stalin was a cold-blooded psychopath.  Hitler was histrionic.  And Mao was a narcissist-to-end-all-narcissists.

Stalin — Anti-social Personality Disorder

The story below is likely apocryphal, but it is widespread — I copied it off this website:

When Josef Stalin was on his deathbed he called in two likely successors, to test which one of the two had a better knack for ruling the country. He ordered two birds to be brought in and presented one bird to each of the two candidates.

      The first one grabbed the bird, but was so afraid that the bird could free himself from his grip and fly away that he squeezed his hand very hard, and when he opened his palm, the bird was dead.     

Seeing the disapproving look on Stalin’s face and being afraid to repeat his rival’s mistake, the second candidate loosened his grip so much that the bird freed himself and flew away.

      Stalin looked at both of them scornfully. “Bring me a bird!” he ordered.  They did.

      Stalin took the bird by its legs and slowly, one by one, he plucked all the feathers from the bird’s little body.

      Then he opened his palm. The bird was laying there naked, shivering, helpless.  Stalin looked at him, smiled gently and said, “You see .. and he is even thankful for the human warmth coming out of my palm.”

Josef Stalin was a classic Anti-social Personality Disordered Psychopath.  He was not known as a particularly charismatic speaker.  He did, however, establish a centralized command economy in the Soviet Union, while modernizing the economy — effectively moving the Soviet Union out of an agrarian economy, imprisoned millions in the Gulags in the Far East/Siberia, as well as starving at least 10 million people in the Ukraine during the Holodomor.  Stalin is interesting as a disordered leadership paradigm insofar as he embodies a very pure Authoritarian v-Meme.  Enemies were not only shot.  They were famously erased from photographs.  As an example, embodying the psychological distortion known as gaslighting, Stalin had his head of secret police, Nikolai Yezhov, arrange for purging all the old Bolsheviks as part of the original revolution, then turned on Yezhov himself and had him executed as well.

Stalin is a great example of the overwhelming weaknesses, as well as marginal strengths of pure Authoritarian systems.  On the one hand, Stalin (as well as the Russian winter) resisted the Nazis’ invasion during Operation Barbarossa, and turned the tide of WWII.  On the other hand, the dramatic failure and collapse of production and productivity during the various collectivization campaigns run inside the Soviet Union should give any Executive Board pause when dealing with a CEO that says things like ‘I need absolute power to run a tight ship.’

Stalin displayed many elements of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as well — but he primarily operated through control of resources, fear and terror.  He made others dependent on his system, while simultaneously ruthlessly killing or starving anyone that got in his way.   Yet the cold-blooded manipulation of truth inside the system, while aggregating economic as well as political power inside the Soviet Union serves as an exemplar of how to terrorize an entire continent.

The main characteristics of the ASD leader are:  unremitting commitment to control; use of fear and dependency to enforce allegiance;  and cold-blooded cruelty to transmit the message that there are no boundaries that are sacred.

Hitler — the Histrionic

So much has been written about Hitler, there’s little I can say in a few sentences that can add to the record.  The reason he is listed, with the fear of invoking/violating Godwin’s Law, is that there is little question that Hitler was one helluva motivational speaker.  Inevitably, though, his speeches would follow an arc whereby he would claim a.) Germans had been victimized by Jews, b.) blame external enemies for any fault, and c.) the only way for Germans to redeem themselves from the past was to follow him — which they did.  Hitler was also extremely fatalistic in his long-term analysis of any efforts to build the 1000 year Reich — it was all supposed to go to ruin anyway.  In fact, in this essay (one of my all-time favorites) Lee Sandlin makes the point that Hitler used to sit around with Adolph Speer, his chief architect, contemplating the ‘ruin value’ of his works.

The key takeaway from Hitler’s characteristics is his potent distortion using Victim/Blaming/Condemned Hero strategies that allow unification of a group of people behind him.  Even though fantastic, the strategy, coupled with historic patterns in German culture — not just anti-Semitism, but Hitler’s ability to tap into Germans’ deep connection with a magical past — helped manipulate a downtrodden people at the end of a period of intense economic desperation.  It’s no surprise that Hitler’s favorite operas were written by Richard Wagner.  Hitler even allegedly swore on Wagner’s grave, in 1923, to maintain the performance venue of Bayreuth as the only place Wagner’s famous Grail redemption opera, Parsifal, could be performed.  In many ways, it was Hitler’s mastery of borrowing the power of myth and deep story that gave him power to manipulate an entire country into mass murder, and their own destruction.

Mao Zedong — The Narcissist

There can be a healthy debate among historians on who was the worst of the Three Great Tyrants.  But there is no question that Mao gives the other two a run for their money.  Not only did Mao control, dominate and murder hundreds of millions of people, but he also ran experiments on entire populations inside his own country.  Where Hitler had some level of In-group/Out-group separation, however execrable, inside Mao’s China, everything was fair game.  It is true that if Mao favored anyone, he at some level gave lip service to the peasant class.  But with his authority, groups like Mao’s Red Guards wreaked havoc on the entire population, and drove large-scale relational destruction and social re-integration through campaigns where intellectuals were sentenced to peasant camps and mass redistribution and destruction of cultural property was also the norm.

Though there were other large-scale campaigns perpetrated by Mao, most people have heard of the Cultural Revolution, where Mao destroyed the universities and killed close to 3 million people.  During the Cultural Revolution, Mao, through forced relocation, and campaigns like the Four Olds and the Four News, systematically replaced centuries of Chinese tradition with what is known in the psychological literature as narcissistic supply directed at him  termed Mao Zedong Thought.  Mao demanded and programmed such levels of thought in the populace that even simple utterances, like “Sweet potato tastes good” became popular slogans with the Chinese peasantry.  In the end, Mao demanded the thought control of a god.

Yet at the same time, there are indisputable figures and indicators during Mao’s reign of terror that in aggregate, the lot of many, or perhaps most of China’s citizens improved.  Life expectancy increased from 35 in 1949, to 63 by 1975.  In many ways, China pre-Mao was frozen in time, and falling further and further behind the West.  Mao, through a catastrophic program of narcissistic relational disruption, in many ways altered the social structure of a nation that had been stuck in a Magical/Authoritarian v-Meme for 2000 years, and created the environment for China’s current rush toward modernity.  It is difficult to know (and not the point of this blog) or to judge Mao’s larger legacy.

The key takeaway from Mao’s efforts in an effort to understand disordered leadership is this:  the Narcissist, through a combination of external terror and the constant drumbeat of self-aggrandizement, coupled with the demands for leadership worship, creates a Black Hole effect around the population they manage.  Everyone looks toward that leader that can alternately be charismatic or cruel, and are drawn into their orbit.  The goal of such a leadership style is a collapse of personal boundaries and agency, with that inculcated passivity ending with the individuals being drawn over the Event Horizon of the culture created.  Coherent action in the population is created through an infinite fragmentation of other relational networks — no one has any other binding relationship that exceeds the relationship with the leader.  And while this can create patterns of coherence greater than the other two styles — Psychopath and Histrionic — in the end, cognitive and intellectual diversity are fundamentally destroyed.  And this leads, in the long-term, to a collapse in creativity, as well as upward information flow in the system.  In the end, such behavior is self-defeating.  Because no one can think completely for an organization — or a nation.

Takeaways:  The Three Tyrants of the 20th century can offer iconic perspectives on anti-empathetic leadership.  Stalin, with ASD, shows the power of unrelenting fear and terror,  social dislocation, and economic control in creating broad-scale passivity that, in the end, dramatically effected the economic productivity of an entire part of the world.  Most important of Stalin’s legacy was the collapse of peer-level trust in Eastern Europe, as well as the Soviet Union.  

Hitler demonstrates the power of what we call v-Meme borrowing — the borrowing of deep, resonant stories from people’s backgrounds for the purpose of manipulation.  As an exemplar of a Histrionic personality disorder, he also successfully used the Victim/Blaming/Condemned Hero triad as a way to garner sympathy and gather control over supporters.

More than any of the above, Mao shows the power of the narcissist.  He took hundreds of millions of people, and through the constant drumbeat of self-aggrandizement, infinitely fragmented millions of relationships and made them focus solely on him.  As a master relational disruptor, he took China’s iconic reverence for scholars and intellectuals, and turned this into class-based rage that resulted in the deaths of millions, and the destruction of an enormous part of China’s cultural heritage.  The creation of coherence through subordination has created an empathetic relational crisis, and through that, a creativity crisis, that modern China is only beginning to recover from today.

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