The Mask Of Leadership

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

“The defects of great men are the consolation of the dunces.” So wrote Victorian essayist Isaac D’Israeli, neatly presaging his son’s political career. Benjamin Disraeli, twice Prime Minister of Britain, would both achieve greatness and reveal enough flaws to satisfy a confederacy of dunces.

But is there another way of looking at the relationship between great deeds and personal defects? Do some people seek consolation for their flaws by trying to attain political greatness? Do they try to assuage their personal issues by using power as a form of self-help? And in so doing, do they turn us, the electorate, into their unwitting therapy animals — docile beasts providing the healing balm of adoration? Passive creatures to be petted and offered treats — as long as we please our needy masters?

The psychological flaws of great men and women intrigue us for good reason: self-preservation. Their potential to inflict collateral damage grows in proportion to their power. We might be sucked into the voids created by their implosions, or caught in the impact craters caused by their explosions — quite literally!

The concentration of power in unsteady hands poses an existential treat to us all. Those who don the mask of leadership, to create a superficial impression of competence, deserve our critical attention. We must learn to look behind the false face they present to us, the pleasing facade that often conceals chaos.

In the film The Mask, Jim Carrey plays a hapless bank clerk who takes possession of an ancient relic that imbues him with supernatural powers — the eponymous mask. On donning the mask, Carrey’s meek, downtrodden character becomes much more assertive and mischievous — but he remains essentially benign.

Later in the movie, the mask falls into the hands of a villainous mob boss. When he puts it on an altogether more malign transformation takes place and everyone is endangered. Though the film is a light-hearted vehicle for Carrey’s extraordinary comic talents, it is also psychologically astute. It portrays the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.” Under the immense pressure of leadership people reveal who they really are. They cannot help themselves.

The question is, can we help ourselves? After all, we are often complicit in our own deception — at least in democratic countries. We voluntarily enter into internecine relationships with our elected representatives. We select leaders whose insatiable need for praise, privilege and power should act as a warning to us. We don’t consider their psychological suitability for office, only the seductive manifesto they bear. That is the nexus of dreams where our unmet needs align with theirs, in a sadomasochistic exchange.

There is a definite pattern of abuse in our relationships with certain politicians and political parties. No matter how badly they treat us, how often they deceive us, we keep voting them back in. It is time we ended these low self-esteem political marriages. We deserve better.

But a pattern of abusive is hard to break and the electoral cycle shares the depressing repetition of a bad romance. Our political suitors may have ignored us for the previous four years, but come election time, we suddenly get their undivided attention. They make a great effort to look their best. They take careful account of our needs. They make us dizzying promises of a golden future together. We forget about the lies, infidelities and pain of the past and convince ourselves that this time it will be different. Then we renew our vows and the cycle of abuse starts all over again.

So what is to be done? The starting point is self-awareness. We must recognise our tendency towards emotional reasoning when it comes to political decision-making. We must stop mistaking our feelings for rational factors. They are not. Feelings, however intensely felt, do not amount to empirical evidence. That is the lesson we should take from of this age of excitations.

How do we go about amassing evidence? In lieu of a system change, in which candidates’ temperamental suitability for high office is routinely and scientifically assessed, humble citizens can conduct crude behavioural tests of their own, to identify undesirable traits in would-be leaders.

Simple observation will reveal if a political candidate has a tendency towards selfishness, deceit, petulance, impulsivity, self-pity and vindictiveness. These are never positive indicators.

For the religiously inclined, evidence of the seven cardinal sins might be a political deal-breaker: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Throw in a tendency to flout the ten commandments and you’ve got a royal flush of flaws!

Those disposed towards a psychiatric worldview might look for evidence of behavioural traits associated with ‘anti-social personalities’ — e.g. manipulation, lack of remorse, poor impulse control, difficulty sustaining relationships, a tendency to blame others for their own problems, breaking rules and laws, etc. There are always signs if we choose to see them.

A dangerous leader is not only revealed by the presence of undesirable traits, but also by the absence of desirable ones. One of the traits most often associated with good leadership is empathy — i.e. the ability to relate to the suffering and concerns of others. To feel their pain.

It is no accident that the leaders who’ve coped best with the Covid crisis are women. Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon all took prompt, practical steps to contain the outbreak of the virus and minimise mortality rates. They offered their citizens solace and inspiration. They exuded a calm authority that breeds confidence. In contrast, the leadership type described in this article has offered only bombast, delusion, evasion and blame.

That is not to say that only women possess empathy. Some clearly lack it. While many men exude it and channel it into social change. Radical empathy movements like the Indian independence campaign and the American civil rights movement were led by men: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr.Martin Luther King. Both suffered many slights, privations and humiliations in their lives, as a consequence of their skin colour. Yet they learned humility, rejected inferiority and fought injustice. Both became a different type of leader: the wounded healer.

It seems that some wounds can be good for us. They can increase our capacity for empathy. They can lead to transformational growth rather than arrested development. But in order for that process to occur we must remember an important fact: we cannot cure our painful feelings by killing them, only by cultivating them.

As the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger wrote: “There is the wound. And there is what comes out of it.” And that may be the crux of this entire matter. A psychological wound is something inflicted upon us — usually early in life. We rarely have any control over the experience. But when it comes to what emerges from the wound we do exercise choice. We may decide to wound others — in the vain hope that this will ameliorate our pain — or we may choose to help others and in so doing heal ourselves. But one way or another a choice is made, for which we are responsible.

The best leaders do not wear masks (except of the anti-Covid kind). They are their authentic selves at all times because they have nothing to conceal. Save for some psychological scar tissue, they have healed from their wounds. And as well as possessing empathy, they are characterised by another rare quality: wisdom.

They pursue the objective truth of every situation without fear or favour. They possess a sincere concern for all life. They are conscious of their own mortality, limitations and flaws. They accept the pain of existence and try to suffer well. They are, in short, philosophers. Perhaps we should look to them for our leadership ideal?

For as Plato warned us: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures…are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have a rest from their evils.”

The ultimate aim of philosophy is self-mastery. Turbulent, unreflective souls who cannot rule themselves should not be allowed to govern others.

We are not their therapy animals.



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