Strong leaders and mental illness — a connection and a warning

In a political season, in a religious country, consider this a caution flag:

“[Psychologist Heinz] Kohut studied a difficult class of disturbed patients with what is known as narcissistic disorders. As he studied them, he noticed similarities between them and charismatic leaders. Kohut spoke of charismatic personalities rather than leaders because most of his patients were not leaders — indeed, some were barely able to function — but they possessed many of the traits of charismatic leaders.

“What was it among his narcissistic patients that made Kohut think of charismatic leaders? He initially noticed that when they presented for therapy, they showed grandiose self-confidence and — unlike most patients — an extraordinary lack of self-doubt. Often they would be quite clear-headed and perceptive; Kohut recounts how one such patient accurately diagnosed his (Kohut’s) shortcomings while in therapy. In addition, they could be very persuasive and accusative. These obvious strengths made them quite distinctive as a group; they did not present in the demoralized, anxious manner of most patients.

“….To add to [Max] Weber and Kohut, Erich Fromm distinguishes between two kinds of narcissism — benign and malign. In the benign form — corresponding to Weber’s ethical prophet and Kohut’s messianic personality — the goal of the leader’s efforts is something he produces, achieves, or does; that is, it is something external to himself. For the messianic prophet this includes doing God’s will by saving souls, building up the church, serving others, preaching the gospel, or whatever. Consequently this form of narcissism is self-checking. To do God’s work, the prophet must be related to reality; this constantly curbs his narcissism and keeps it within bounds (Fromm 1964, 77). In contrast, the goal of malignant narcissism — corresponding to Weber’s exemplary prophet and Kohut’s charismatic personality — is not something the prophet does or produces, but something he has or is. He draws closer to God not because of something he achieves but because of some inner quality. In maintaining his belief he does not need to be related to anyone or anything. Such figures may remove themselves more and more from reality and inflate their delusions to huge proportions in order to avoid discovering that their divinity is merely a product of their imagination. Thus malignant narcissism lacks the corrective element that is present in the benign form. It is not self-limiting but is crudely solipsistic and xenophobic (Fromm 1964, 77).” — Len Oakes, in his book Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (Syracuse University Press, 1997)


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