An impulsive president tries to look tough without being prepared to follow through.
Few who served in Iraq, or who had a loved one serving there, can avoid a spasm of gratification at learning that an American drone blew up Qassem Soleimani and half a dozen of his henchmen. The Iranian general’s hands were covered with the blood of thousands—Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, Israelis, and their allies. As Carl von Clausewitz wrote, because war involves violence, the emotions cannot help but be involved, and so a ruthless satisfaction at the elimination of an implacable foe is natural and fair. But that sentiment will pass, as it soon should, leaving behind the need for sober consideration of the deed and its consequences. In particular, we must ask what the strategic implications are, and how prepared the United States is to handle what follows.
The loss to Iran here is considerable. Soleimani was an exceptionally talented and skillful leader who inspired his subordinates and a larger Shia public. He masterminded forms of warfare that were not without precedent—after all, Frenchmen and Englishmen waged proxy war in 17th-century North America—but to which he brought rare skill and subtlety. Iran is a negligible conventional power, but through its mastery of sympathetic and controlled regional militias; clever use of technology (including explosively formed projectiles for roadside bombs, but also drones, speedboats, and missiles); and deployment of propaganda, it has become the most formidable Middle Eastern power after Israel. Soleimani was very, very good at 21st-century war.
Because organizations like the Quds Force, which he led, are not conventional military bureaucracies, their leaders’ charisma and talents matter even more than in, say, the U.S. armed forces. Soleimani’s demise is not only infuriating but demoralizing for his subordinates. A web of contacts and relationships cultivated over nearly 40 years of chronic warfare will vanish with him. Like one of his Hezbollah protégés, Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated by Israel in 2008, possibly with American help), he will prove impossible to replace for some period of time, perhaps forever.
Iran’s reaction to Soleimani’s assassination is unpredictable. It could be an explosion of violence, or long-term revenge plotted and executed over years, or attacks on exposed American outposts in Iraq and Syria, or terrorism in other countries, or mass-casualty events, or the proportionate killing of a senior American general. Or the Iranians could simply curl up in the fetal position. There are precedents for that, too, the most spectacular of which followed the shooting-down of an Iranian commercial aircraft in 1988 by an American warship, which killed all 290 passengers and crew members. It was a dreadful mistake, and in the immediate aftermath the U.S. government braced itself for a wave of terrorism in response. Instead, the Iranian government seemed to conclude that the Americans were willing to go to any lengths to bring them down, and moved quickly to terminate the Iran-Iraq War on terms disadvantageous to themselves.
In the present case, the Iranians are more likely to retaliate, at times and places of their choosing. Unlike in 1988, the Iranians have foreign friends who will not stand with the United States. Indeed, in the past few weeks, the Iranians pointedly held naval exercises with China and Russia, neither of which would be averse to seeing the United States get a bloody nose in the Middle East, and both of which might provide various forms of tacit support.
But the larger questions are about the United States: What is its strategy, and what can it handle?
The Trump administration has taken a hard line with Iran, walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the flawed nuclear agreement signed by the Obama administration in 2015, and ramping up sanctions. The theory of victory, however, was never clear. The goal, presumably, was to make Iran see the error of its ways, and sign a far more restrictive agreement covering the development of long-range missiles and pulling it back from its subversive activities throughout the Middle East. But economic pressure alone has been unable to bring Tehran to heel. Indeed, in one of those clever strokes of theatrical violence at which Iran excels, in September 2019 a sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities showed just how much damage the Iranians can do. It sent a message to the Gulf countries that the Islamic Republic was not going away, and could do a lot of damage that the Americans could not prevent. The ambiguity of the attack—credit was claimed, implausibly, by Houthi tribesmen in Yemen, but no one doubts that it was Iranian-directed—may be a hint of what lies ahead.
The alternative, then, is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. But the regime has shown its willingness to slaughter hundreds and even thousands in order to stay in power, most recently in its brutal suppression of price riots. Such brutality works, at least for a time. And since the United States has, for now, gone out of the business of invading Persian Gulf countries, an external power is unlikely to facilitate regime collapse. Thus, even before recent events, Washington’s tactics seemed to have had no discernible way of getting to a strategic outcome.
Which brings to the fore the largest problem: the Trump administration’s national-security team. There is no such thing as a Platonic ideal of strategy. There is, rather, only strategy as can be executed by a particular group of people at any time. Any war—and if you are in the business of blowing people up, you are at war—involves improvisation and reaction. As Winston Churchill somberly observed, “Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.” Iran cannot beat the United States in the field, but it can win the war politically, and may very well do so.
The dominant tone in the American government is military assertiveness. The American military has in its theater commander, General Frank Mackenzie Jr., and its chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, two tough, experienced, aggressive commanders, with lots of time downrange in Iraq, where they personally felt the sting of Soleimani’s tactics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is forward-leaning, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper, promoted unexpectedly from being secretary of the Army, has been a capable organizer but has not articulated a distinctive strategic point of view. Neither has the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. None has shown a substantial inclination to buck the president’s wishes or even his inclinations.
As the United States has learned to its cost, good decision making requires a forceful brake, or at least a counterpoise, to a tempting decision like the one to eliminate Soleimani. There seems to have been no one playing that role, and thereby ensuring that second- and third-order considerations had been identified and explored. Beneath the Cabinet officials is an uneven crew, many of its members filling acting positions. And above them all is a mercurial, impulsive, and ignorant president who has no desire to be pulled into a Middle Eastern war in an election year, and who wants to look tough without being prepared to follow through. This is a recipe for strategic ineptitude, and possibly failure.
The novelist James Gould Cozzens observed higher headquarters at close range during World War II. He drew on that for his masterly World War II novel, Guard of Honor. In one passage, his protagonist admits to himself that some of his seniors “were not complete fools.” However, he noted,
it was the habit of all of them to look straight, and not very far, ahead. They saw their immediate duties and did those, not vaguely or stupidly, but in an experienced firm way. Then they waited until whatever was going to happen, happened. Then they sized this up, noted whatever new duties there were, and did those. Their position was that of a chess player who had in his head no moves beyond the one it was now his turn to make. He would be dumbfounded when, after he had made four or five such moves (each sensible enough in itself) sudden catastrophe, from an unexpected direction by an unexpected means, fell on him, and he was mated.
Minus the compliments, that may be where the United States government is headed.
Adam Neumann was flying high. Literally.
His office-rental giant WeWork was months away from being valued at $47 billion. Revenue was doubling annually. And Mr. Neumann was zipping across the Atlantic Ocean in a Gulfstream G650 private jet with friends last summer, smoking marijuana.
After the group landed in Israel and left the plane, the flight crew found a sizable chunk of the drug stuffed in a cereal box for the return flight, according to people familiar with the incident. The jet’s owner, upset and fearing repercussions of trans-border marijuana transport, recalled the plane, leaving Mr. Neumann to find his own way back to New York, these people said.
Since Mr. Neumann co-founded WeWork—recently renamed We Co.—with Miguel McKelvey nine years ago, he has led with unusual exuberance and excess. His combination of entrepreneurial vision, personal charisma and brash risk-taking helped the company surpass $2 billion in annual revenue, and made it the country’s most valuable startup.
Now many of the same qualities that helped fuel his company’s breakneck growth in the private market are piling up as potential liabilities as the company prepares to go public—helmed by a CEO who looks little like a typical public-company chief.
Mr. Neumann muses about the implausible:
- becoming leader of the world,
- living forever,
- amassing more than $1 trillion in wealth.
Partying has long been a feature of his work life, heavy on the tequila.
Public investors are increasingly skeptical of the formula that has worked for Mr. Neumann so far: his pitch that We is far more than a real-estate company. With its rapid growth and use of technology, he argued, the company deserves rich valuations normally reserved for tech companies.
Instead, many potential investors now see a fast-growing office subleasing company with losses of more than $1.6 billion last year.
Since We filed the prospectus for its initial public offering last month, it has been besieged with criticism over its governance, business model and ability to turn a profit. It is now expecting an IPO valuation as low as a third of the $47 billion sticker price it garnered in a January funding round—a drop without recent precedent. This week, We postponed the offering until October at the earliest.
Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors have been dismayed by the number of potential conflicts of interest disclosed in the “S-1” IPO prospectus, including Mr. Neumann leasing properties he owns back to the company and borrowing heavily against his stock. Even some of We’s private investors said they were angered to learn that an entity Mr. Neumann controls sold the rights to the word “We” to the company for almost $6 million—before public pressure led him to unwind the deal.
“This is not the way everybody behaves,” said Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter Inc., who led the company through one of the larger tech IPOs of the past decade. “The degree of self-dealing in the S-1 is so egregious, and it comes at a time when you’ve got regulators and politicians and folks across the country looking out at Silicon Valley and wondering if there’s the appropriate level of self-awareness.”
Given the prominence of the IPO, he added, “that is a big problem.”
Mr. Neumann, 40, declined to comment through a spokesman, who cited rules surrounding the planned IPO. Mr. Neumann told We employees Tuesday the process had been humbling and he would learn from it, say people who heard him. We executives have previously said he is strongly devoted to the company, and many of his personal transactions were made with the company’s best interests at heart.
This account is based on interviews with current and former employees, investors and friends who interacted with Mr. Neumann as he built We.
For startup investors, the 6-foot-5 Mr. Neumann has always had the qualities they crave in Silicon Valley founders, despite being based in New York. He is intensely ambitious and a masterful storyteller with a magnetic personality who can inspire and sell.
Raised in Israel on a kibbutz, Mr. Neumann moved to the U.S. when he was 22, where he attended Baruch College and tried to start businesses. One was a collapsible heel on women’s shoes that didn’t get off the ground. Working out of his Tribeca apartment, he started Krawlers, which sought to make baby clothes with knee pads to make crawling more comfortable. The slogan, he has said: “Just because they don’t tell you, doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.” It never gained traction.
He and Mr. McKelvey started a small co-working space on the side during the recession that followed the financial crisis and were amazed by the demand.
By 2010, they had started WeWork, with essentially the same core business model that exists today: They lease an office long-term, renovate it to make it hip and inviting, and sublease smaller desks and offices short-term.
He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.
Narcissism has not only become a normalized social condition, it is increasingly being incentivized. The framework of narcissism with the central pillars of lack of empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, superficiality, anger, rage, arrogance, and shallow emotion is a manifestation of pathological insecurity – an insecurity that is experienced at both the individual and societal level. The paradox is that we value these patterns – and venerate them through social media, mainstream media, and consumerism, they represent a fast-track to financial and professional success. These traits are endemic in political, corporate, academic, and media leaders. There are few lives which are not personally touched by narcissists – be it your spouse, partner, parent, child, colleague, boss, friend, sibling, or neighbor. Whether societally or individually, the toxic wave of narcissism, entitlement, and pathological insecurity is harming us all. The enticements of charm, charisma, confidence, and success can draw us in or blind us to the damaging truths of narcissism. The invalidation inherent in these relationships infects those are in them with self-doubt, despair, confusion, anxiety, depression and the chronic feeling of being “not enough,” all of which make it so difficult to step away and set boundaries. The illusion of hope and the fantasy of redemption can result in years of second chances for narcissists, and despondency when change never comes. It’s time for a wake-up call. Health and wellness campaigns preach avoidance of unhealthy foods, sedentary lifestyles, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, but rarely preach avoidance of unhealthy or toxic people. Yet the health benefits of removing toxic people from a life may have a far greater benefit to both physical and psychological health than going to the gym. We need to learn to be better gatekeepers for our minds, bodies, and souls. Instead of habituating to the global shift of validating narcissism and other toxic patterns, it’s time to understand it and take our lives back. Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks, CA and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, where she was named Outstanding Professor in 2012. She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
today I am going to talk about the most
overused misunderstood problematic words
of our time a phenomenon a word that is
shaping all of our destinies that word
is narcissism narcissism is a word that
is being used to understand bad behavior
everywhere in national leaders in heads
of state heads of corporations fancy
academic types athletes celebrities we
actually no longer recoil at their
grandiosity their entitlement and their
incivility in fact too many people award
them grudging admiration for their
successes and that grants permission to
everyone to replicate these abusive
patterns of behavior with impunity now
things got confusing when people started
using narcissism as a clinical term it
became a way of medicalizing bad
behavior it’s actually not a diagnostic
term narcissistic personality disorder
is a diagnosis but it’s pretty rare
because these folks don’t show up to be
diagnosed anyhow so narcissism is in
fact a personality pattern it’s a sort
of way of relating to the world it’s an
adjective to describe their style much
like you could describe someone as
agreeable or stubborn or introverted
some of these patterns are valued by
society and others aren’t and the fact
is most people don’t receive being
called narcissistic as a compliment it’s
just however a descriptive term and no
matter how much we turn our noses up at
it paradoxically as a society we reward
it dr. Alan Francis was one of the
architects of the diagnosis of
narcissistic personality disorder and he
argues that we actually give badly
behaved jerks and out when we call it a
diagnosis if a person is a jerk then
they’re a jerk disliking a pattern of
behavior doesn’t make it a mental
illness that so-called jerk has to be
experiencing problems in their lives
and for their narcissism to actually be
considered a diagnosis
so if we were to cobble together all the
various things that make up narcissism
we land on a very uncomfortable summit
narcissism is comprised of certain
pillars as I call them
- lack of empathy
- validation seeking
- hypersensitivity rage and a
- tendency to manipulate and exploit people
it’s confusing because they’re simultaneously
under responsive they tend to be
emotionally aloof cold and distant but
then they’re hyper responsive they have
hair-trigger temper that set off like
that when their fragile egos get
threatened so narcissism however I
believe is synonymous with pathological
insecurity the key to understanding the
narcissist is that they feel constantly
unstable and empty their grandiosity is
actually an immature defense against
these threats to them their sense of
self and they’re desperate for the world
to keep validating them on their good
days they look happy they’re great
they’re grandiose but on the bad days
the facade crumbles quickly and we see
disproportionate rage shame and
vindictiveness I became interested in
narcissism through a couple of different
pathways but the most striking was the
fact that more and more clients were
coming into my office and talking about
relationships in which their partners
treated them with utter disregard
indifference coldness they lacked
empathy they would question their
reality they would lie to them at times
they were unfaithful they were
inconsistent and no matter what they
tried with their partner it didn’t get
better at the same time I started
working with more narcissistic clients
and would you know nothing we tried
really made things better in fact they
just remain difficult people and I don’t
think I’m not bad a therapist so it was
clear that these relationships were
being kept in place simultaneously by
hope and fear hope that someday it would
get better if they kept trying harder
but fear that if they left these
relationships they would be alone
partner or even without a mother and
some of them had the fear that maybe
this is as good as it gets the world has
become more insecure and the reasons for
that are varied galip’s annual global
emotions report said that in 2017 was
the most miserable in about a decade the
report indicated that sadness anger
worry stress and physical pain were more
frequently endorsed last year than in
the ten years prior
now Gallup speculated on a variety of
reasons for this but let’s pitfall for a
minute could it be that this increase in
misery could reflect the increase in
insecurity incivility and tolerance of
narcissism our world supports the
increasing insecurity in our world and
the platforms that capitalize on it such
as consumerism have created optimal
fertile ground for narcissism to
incubate and proliferate when human
value is driven entirely by external
incentives such as success then
qualities such as empathy do not have a
fighting chance because we no longer
value them and they’re no longer
valuable so why do we get pulled into
we’re not flocking to narcissism because
we love emotional coldness or
invalidation or shallow people
we’re drawn in because narcissism is
seductive I call it the three C’s of narcissism
- charisma and
that’s not to say that all charming and
charismatic people are narcissistic
however we do know that these traits are
so seductive that we get drawn in and
they can blind us to the more venomous
characteristics that are unfolding at
the same time such as entitlement
vindictiveness or lack of empathy so
then once a person is in a relationship
and it’s uncomfortable and is painful
why would they stay with a narcissist
all of us are vulnerable to those
narcissistic charms and in fact we may
be rendered even more vulnerable to
sticking around for the abuse by a
narcissist if we originated from family
systems in which the patterns of
narcissism were normalized such as
having a cold authoritarian
distant invalidating or abusive parents
our own insecurities render us
vulnerable and also less able to climb
out when the climate shifts from charm
and charisma to invalidation and abuse
most of us are great at giving second
chances and second chances are in fact
the accelerant for narcissism at all
levels when we are in a narcissistic
relationship we make excuses that’s just
how he is he didn’t really mean that she
means well ah that’s just her culture
and there’s the rub that’s how this
infectious virus of being in any form of
narcissistic relationship whether with
an individual or a family or a company
or a culture can slowly proliferate and
take over most of us issue second
chances with zeal our storytelling in
our culture is immersed in tales of hope
redemption and forgiveness and while
that’s all very healthy in the wrong
hands hope and forgiveness may not
represent an opportunity for growth or
change or restoration but rather
permission to just keep things going as
they are because with narcissists
forgiveness is interpreted as hey let’s
just keep the status quo have we created
a world in which narcissism as a pattern
as a personality is becoming necessary
to succeed in the new world order this
is where we hit a bit of a problematic
divide the very qualities associated
with material success are actually bad
for our health because while these
qualities may be festered and fostered
by our cultures and our schools and our
economies and our societies they are
never going to be good for our close
relationships and that doesn’t just mean
spouses and partners that means parents
children siblings extended family
friends colleagues narcissistic patterns
undercut the core of what’s necessary
for healthy relationships those things
include mutuality respect compassion
patience genuineness honesty and trust
things that are simply not possible with
the system or a person which is
narcissistic and it’s in that intimate
relationship space where we see the most
profound impacts of a narcissist what
did that be a spouse or a partner a
relationship with a narcissist is a
gradual indoctrination you slowly become
inured to their lack of empathy though
Tantrums their rage their insults and
their entitlement their lies and their
challenges to your reality they’re
insulting words slowly become your
self-talk and before you know it your
new mantra becomes I am not enough
anyone who’s had a narcissistic parent
will acknowledge that it shaped the arc
of their lives it instilled an
insecurity in a chronic jousting at
psychological windmills from an early
age narcissistic parents leave a legacy
including an inability to trust your own
instincts to safely enter close
relationships to trust your own
abilities and a lifetime can be spent
trying to gain the notice of the aloof
detached and disconnected parent the
proliferation of narcissism and
leadership in our culture governments
companies and world has made very
difficult workplaces the narcissistic
boss is the insecure tyrant
these are workplaces ruled by fear and
subterfuge abuse and vindictiveness
deceit and slippery ethics and in the
face of the me2 movement the top notes
of narcissism pervaded all of the
stories the entitled and untouchable
tyrant pillaging the workforce and in
most case with almost no consequences
the most painful realization is that
narcissistic patterns are just not that
amenable to change at a minimum for any
change to occur the narcissus has to
recognize the harmful pattern of their
behavior then they have to want to
change it and then they have to put in
the daily work of change there is a
small number of cases where that kind of
happened but under conditions of stress
and frustration the usual issues of Rage
will pop up the rubberband of
personality returns to its usual shape
the small changes that could be made may
not be enough to make a close intimate
relationship sustainable and if somebody
is not willing to recognize that they
need to make changes because they’re
hurting other people there’s little
likelihood they will make a change but
there is a likelihood they will continue
to blame other people the world or you
for their bad behavior so that means
that the only remaining strategies are
to maintain your expectations and set
boundaries not to try to change that
person or waste hope on the possibility
of change but to recognize that this is
how it is and either accept it or slowly
step away from it now this is very
individual and it’s not always possible
if it’s your parents or your child who’s
narcissistic you may not be willing to
sever that tie finances culture children
or love can make walking away from a
marriage or a romantic relationship
seemingly impossible and that’s fine but
managing expectations on this pattern
can protect you from the downstream
effects of this ongoing abuse and allow
you to construct a more realistic
reality sadly most of us put 90 percent
of our hearts minds and souls into our
most dysfunctional unhealthy
invalidating relationships and save the
little bit that’s left for the people
who are good and kind to us it’s time we
flip this skewed calculus and start
giving the best of ourselves to our
healthy and reciprocal relationships and
really only give the bare minimum to the
relationships that really aren’t helping
us grow perhaps that’s a healthier way
of negotiating these treacherous waters
of narcissism without losing ourselves
in the depths of self-doubt and
self-criticism now this can be extended
to our thinking about the world at large
it can be small fixes such as turning
off the polarizing discourses we hear
and learning to measure our self-worth
and the worth of others with new metrics
- and empathy
we can learn to
tend to our own gardens and not get
pulled into hostile interactions that
benefit no one so this begs a question
can there be happy endings or
tagging istic personalities and cultures
are concerned I actually think there can
be the greatest challenge about happy
endings in real life is that they rarely
look like the ones we crafted when we’re
young and it’s easy to get stuck in our
own old narratives people who come from
narcissistic families may feel as though
they missed out on having a parent who
is an ally or a supporter even as they
go into adulthood people who married
narcissistic partners may find
themselves mired in a nightmare of
emotional abuse or simply finding that
they’re actually alone despite being
married few people write stories of
their lives that build in disappointment
I have found that survivors of all kinds
of narcissistic and antagonistic
relationships actually can and do have
happy endings they just don’t look like
they thought all of us are bigger than
this epidemic of narcissism any of us
can change that you are not enough
narrative that still resonates we can
repair it ourselves we can look at the
entitled shenanigans of people who
shriek don’t you know who I am and
realize that you don’t give a damn about
who they are where there are scars
beautiful things actually can spring
khalil gibran writes out of suffering
have emerged the strongest Souls the
most massive characters are seared with
scars yes the world is in fact becoming
more narcissistic and insecure
don’t let the global epidemic of
incivility infect you inoculate yourself
find your communities find common ground
with other people instead of living in
polarization practice kindness and
empathy even when other people are not
choose your friends and your romances
with care every life story can be a
miracle or a tragedy it just depends on
how you write it
these days with the world in such
disarray anyone who is surviving with
their empathy unbroken their hearts
sound their integrity in place and
sense of humor intact is nothing short
of dauntless pushing back on narcissism
is a human rights issue all of us need
to stop giving permission to narcissism
and narcissists and start taking our
lives our souls and our world back thank you
After all, Trump clearly has something like charisma. According to the sociologist Max Weber, charismatic authority is found when norms derive from an individual perceived as having extraordinary characteristics rather than from tradition or from a codified legal system. Weber formulated his account of charisma by learning from his theologian colleagues studying the gifts of the Holy Spirit and applying their insights to the secular analysis of politics – even though the social scientists that now use charisma rarely consider the term’s religious origins.
Trump indisputably flouts legal norms and traditions, and his oft-mentioned conflation of his self with his office suggests a view of authority as issuing from his person. But does he have extraordinary characteristics that resemble supernatural gifts? Obviously he thinks he possesses such characteristics:
- he reports possessing “one of the greatest memories of all time,”
- an IQ that is “one of the highest,”
- the personality of a “very stable genius,”
- a superior knowledge of the economy, the military, politics, and even the Bible, and of course
- incomparable business acumen.
In a sense, an objective measure of extraordinary characteristics is irrelevant: charisma functions by fueling a narrative about the extraordinary. Trump indisputably flouts legal norms and traditions, and his oft-mentioned conflation of his self with his office suggests a view of authority as issuing from his person. But does he have extraordinary characteristics that resemble supernatural gifts? Obviously he thinks he possesses such characteristics: he reports possessing “one of the greatest memories of all time,” an IQ that is “one of the highest,” the personality of a “very stable genius,” a superior knowledge of the economy, the military, politics, and even the Bible, and of course incomparable business acumen. In a sense, an objective measure of extraordinary characteristics is irrelevant: charisma functions by fueling a narrative about the extraordinary. That narrative matters more than whether the snake-handler is occasionally bitten, the “healed” go back to their hospital beds, or the “tongues” spoken are gibberish.That narrative matters more than whether the snake-handler is occasionally bitten, the “healed” go back to their hospital beds, or the “tongues” spoken are gibberish.
When we think charisma in politics, we usually think eloquence, perhaps eloquence embodied: Franklin D. Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. The rhetorical heights of their speeches have little in common with Trump’s boastful proclamations and tweeted jabs. However, charisma is always relative to a context. What appeared charismatic centuries ago, or decades ago, or, in our age of rapid media evolution, even a few years ago does not appear charismatic today. Just try teaching Cicero to college freshmen. Moreover, charisma is relative to a medium: the charismatic silent film actress could fall flat in the era of talkies, and what charisma looks like in a scripted drama of the 90s is quite different than that of today’s reality TV stars.
In short, when the relevant media are Twitter and cable news, not network television, presidential charisma looks quite different. Whether we like it or not, Trump has an extraordinary gift for expressing himself via tweet, a gift harnessed to secure his personal authority over against norms derived from tradition or bureaucracy. Charismatic Christianity, too, embraces the authority derived from extraordinary gifts over against institutional forms of Christianity or traditional religious norms. To staid Episcopalians or Catholics, charismatic Christians can appear ignorant, chaotic, and vulgar.
While charismatic Christians are now classed as a subset of evangelicals, a dialectic between charismatic moments and institutionalizing moments has long infused American Christianity, and American culture as a whole. The revivals that swept the nation in the early nineteenth century featured all sorts of strange, supernaturally-inspired responses: trances, uncontrollable laughing, barking like dogs, and running in circles. The spiritual energy expressed there would come to be institutionalized in what are now cornerstones of mainline Protestantism: the Methodist and Baptist churches. The hotbeds of religious charisma were, a few years later, centers of abolitionism, a movement pioneered by fringe activists and prophets like John Brown and Sojourner Truth that would eventually move to the center of American politics with the Emancipation Proclamation.
.. When we focus on charisma, Trump’s electoral success appears far less surprising. He defeated a candidate who lacked charisma and who was committed to the norms of the status quo. The narrative around Obama, especially in 2008, was also driven by charisma: an extraordinarily gifted man whose candidacy represented a turn against institutional norms through the symbolism of his blackness. George W. Bush had his own sort of charisma legible to those in Middle America in 2000, in stark contrast to Al Gore’s uninspired competence and embrace of bureaucracy. And there was Clinton and Reagan and Carter. Obviously American politics is more complex than such a story allows, but the impulse toward charismatic (even more than populist) politics is worth pondering, particularly when we attend to the ways that charisma looks quite different as contexts vary.
.. Once we understand political charisma as inextricable from religious charisma, we can access religious resources to make judgments about charisma. Charismatic Christians have thought long and hard about how to discern whether some extraordinary ability is a gift of the Holy Spirit or a gift of the Devil. Does a gift lift us up toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, giving us a new perspective on the ways the world is sinful? Or does that gift merely advance worldly interests? Further, charismatic Christianity at its best affirms that extraordinary gifts are available to all, and those who possess such gifts are charged with opening others to them. This charge, to evangelize, breaks boundaries of race, class, and gender.
The origins of modern charismatic Christianity are found in Los Angeles during the first years of the twentieth century. The black preacher William J. Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival where Christians who were white, Asian, Latino, and black, rich and poor, old and young spoke in tongues and witnessed miraculous healing. This does not sound like a Trump rally, but it also does not sound like a Bernie Sanders rally. It sounds more like Occupy Wall Street, like the Women’s March, like airport protests against the travel ban, like protests against racial profiling at a Philadelphia Starbucks. In grassroots social movements we find democratic charisma, not authoritarian charisma, not the Devil’s charisma. Discerning the difference is one of the fundamental challenges of American life.
It’s hard to quantify charisma, but by any measure Joel Osteen has some pretty impressive stats. Every week, the man some call “The Smiling Preacher,” draws an estimated 43,500 individuals to his Lakewood Church, which he moved into a former professional basketball stadium just off Houston’s Highway 59 in 2005. Osteen’s weekly sermons are beamed across seven networks in the United States and, by some estimates, reach 95 percent of the nation’s households and more than 150 countries.
The 53-year-old pastor, with his boyish good looks, ubiquitous incisors, and his impeccably coiffed mane of wavy, brown locks, oversees a budget estimated at upward of $70 million. He has penned no less than seven best sellers (most derived from his sermons), has amassed a net worth estimated at $40 million, with book sales and related revenue reportedly exceeding $55 million, and lives in a 17,000-square foot, $10.5 million mansion. All of it is built upon the personality—the words, the wisdom, and in no small part the charisma—of the man the congregants of the nation’s largest charismatic church refer to, simply, as “Pastor Joel.”
So, what is it that makes Osteen different from the rest of us? What is the source of his magical magnetism?
Many—including Osteen himself—might attribute his gifts to the favor of a higher power. After all, charisma, wrote the early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber, who gave the word its most widely used modern definition, is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
But there’s a small but growing group of individuals who have another explanation. Using brain-scan technologies and modern statistical techniques, a band of committed academics in recent years have set out to decipher that mysterious quality from which legendary leadership is born. And some have reached what a previous generation of observers might have considered a dubious conclusion: That it’s possible not just to reverse-engineer charisma, but that it’s something, at least in part, we might learn to master.
“Charismatic tactics can be taught, and the more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” says John Antonakis, a professor of Organizational Behavior, and Director of the Ph.D. program in management at the University of Lausanne. (Read the Nautilus feature about how we create charismatic leaders and the dangerous consequences of their power.)
By studying well-known charismatics and replicating their actions in the lab, Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling, to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated gestures at key moments.
t the request of Nautilus, Antonakis assigned a doctoral student, Benjamin Tur, to sit down and code the first 10 minutes of a 2012 sermon by Osteen, “The Power of I Am,” a speech that Oprah Winfrey says changed her life.
The sermon opens with a photographic montage that includes an image of a smiling Osteen, standing with his photogenic family—son, daughter, and wife—autumn leaves cascading joyfully down around them. It moves to snapshots of his son throwing a football, his daughter kissing a puppy dog, and finally lands on Joel standing with his beautiful wife Victoria, her long blonde hair billowing gently in the wind. The screen cuts to a camera slowly moving over a huge multiracial stadium crowd of all shapes and sizes, panning in and resting with the handsome Osteen. That’s when the magic begins.
Osteen is clad in an impeccable Cerulean blue suit, crisp white shirt and purple, paisley tie, and he is at that very moment, extending his arm and open hand outward toward the screen—toward me—toward all of us—beckoning viewers to join him.
“God bless you! It’s a joy to come into your homes,” Osteen says, pointing his index finger E.T.-like at the viewing audience for just a second, flashing a humble smile, then leaning his right shoulder ever so slightly toward the camera, while blinking his long eyelashes rapidly, as if awakening to a bright, glorious morning. “We love you. If you are ever in our area, please stop by and be a part of one of our services! I promise you we’ll make you feel right at home. Thanks so much for tuning in.”
Osteen shambles over to a wooden podium, places a hand gently on its edge, and tells the audience he likes to start with “something funny.”
“I heard about this 92-year-old man,” Osteen begins. “He wasn’t feeling up to par and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later the doctor saw him walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, ‘Wow you sure are feeling a lot better aren’t you!’ He said, ‘Yes, doctor, I’m just taking your orders. You said, ‘Get a hot mama and be cheerful.’ The doctor said, ‘I didn’t say that, I said ‘You got a heart murmur be careful!’”
With the tone set, Osteen is off, exhorting his followers to hold their Bibles aloft, repeat a prayer, and then launching into an inspirational message.
Right out of the gate, Osteen is using three of Antonakis’ identified tactics: an animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures. All three figure in Osteen’s opening, even before he has launched into his actual sermon. Taken together, the gestures cue the audience that they have arrived on friendly territory, and encourage them to let down their guards. Osteen begins his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the power of I am,” he says. “What follows these two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. I am blessed. I am strong, I am healthy. Or, I am slow, I am unattractive, I am a terrible mother. The I ams that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure.”
To connect through a verbal message, Antonakis says, a leader must do three things. He must
- “frame” a vision or paint a picture by using metaphor or stories. He must
- express sentiments of the collective. Finally, he must
- deliver it all in an in animated and passionate way. In the minutes that follow, Osteen will continue to do all three.
Of the 12 different CLTs that Antonakis and Tur look for, nine are verbal. They are:
- metaphor and comparison,
- rhetorical question,
- lists and repetitions,
- moral convictions,
- expressing the sentiments of the collective,
- setting high and ambitious goals, and
- creating confidence that goals can be achieved.
Osteen uses on average one charismatic verbal tactic every two sentences. By comparison, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has well over three times as many verbal signaling techniques per sentence—his language is infused with powerful imagery and metaphor. “Osteen’s speech is rather average when it comes to use of verbal signaling techniques,” the academics say.
But Osteen makes up for his relative poverty of verbal CLTs by the way he delivers his sermon. He takes full advantage of the medium of the television, which allows us to watch him up close.
Antonakis and Tur say that Osteen shows an open body posture and uses representative gestures at key moments; for instance, when he says, “I am so old,” he mimics wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. There is also his voice. He displays variation both in term of pitch and speed, slowing down, using pauses or speeding up. “Like MLK, his voice sometimes vibrates in this preacher style,” Antonakis and Tur say. Finally, there is Osteen’s facial expression. “He is smiling constantly and accompanies that by raising his eyebrows, making his face more expressive.”
In conclusion, say Antonakis and Tur, the handsome Osteen “embodies his speech and smiles constantly throughout the talk. This combination of nonverbal behavior makes the speech captivating for the audience.”
What makes a person magnetic and why we should be wary
That was precisely what John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior, and the director of the doctoral program in management at the University of Lausanne who has spent years studying charismatic speakers, told me. “Charismatic techniques can be taught,” he said. Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the
- use of metaphors and storytelling to
- nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated, representative gestures at key moments.
When taken together, he has shown, they have helped decide eight of the last 10 presidential elections. “The more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” he said. (Read here how Antonakis breaks down the CLTs of super-popular TV preacher Joel Osteen.)
Tony Campolo had mastered all the tactics. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bart Campolo and his father traversed the country in a beat-up, sky-blue Dodge Coronet, giving sermons wherever they could. Campolo marveled at his father in action. “My dad was one of the most charismatic people in the world,” Campolo said. “I’ve been around black preachers and people like my dad, who can go up and down the spectrum, do the whisper that you can’t help but listen to, tell the joke, then tell the tear-jerking story, and then the fiery fulmination. He can do it all over the map.”
Many of the most important lessons of Bart’s vocation came after the elder Campolo’s sermons were over. That was when Bart’s dad would ask his son what he’d seen, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Like how to read a room.
“You try to figure out who’s the most difficult part of the room,” Campolo said. “Say you’re at a college campus and there’s a bunch of athletes sitting on the back row. If you don’t get to them, they’re going to hurt you all night long.” So before you get up to speak, Campolo said, you go to the back of the room and talk to the potential troublemakers. “You might say, ‘Hey man, why did you choose this school? How did you get here?’ You try to get those people on your side even before you get up on the stage.” Or you seek them out while you’re speaking, making eye contact, reaching directly to them.
Campolo offered another example. “I remember one time I was with my dad and we went to this big music festival and there were probably 10,000 kids on a hillside. There’s Frisbees flying around. There’s all sorts of distractions. The acoustics are such that no matter what you do, the crowd won’t hear itself. He was like, ‘This is going to be tough.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to get up and the first story I’m going to tell is a heavy, emotional story. If I try humor, since they won’t hear anyone else laughing, they won’t laugh. In a space like this, you have to throw the humor away and go for emotional resonance. You can take a group like this down, but you really can’t take them up.”
Campolo said his dad had a natural gift for leadership. But he was certain where that gift came from. His dad, he said, like another famously charismatic leader, had a desperate need to be liked.
“My dad for a long time was the spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton,” Campolo said. “He and Clinton were and are great friends. I was once in D.C. with my dad and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to visit the president, you want to come?’ Everybody tells you when you’re in the room with Clinton, you’re the only person in the world. He has this ability, this charisma, that makes you feel like he’s really seeing you, he really feels your pain. Both he and my dad lost their fathers early in life. I think that can create a huge insecurity. It often seems that guys like that need a standing ovation every 10 minutes to feel validated. So that’s part of where charisma comes from. It has to do with the emotional makeup of the person.”
Charisma, though, has two halves. It’s a relationship between the person who possesses it and the people who respond to it. It’s only when the spark meets the kindling that a flame can ignite. A charismatic speaking to a mirror is not particularly exciting. Put one in front of a crowd, however, and you’re in for a show.
Emotion is the accelerant. In a 2005 article in Science, Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov showed individuals two pictures side by side of competing congressional candidates and asked them to rate their competence solely based on their appearance. Their judgments, which they were capable of forming within a second, predicted with almost 70 percent accuracy which candidate went on to win the election.
“We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them,” Todorov said at the time. “It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.” Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Todorov demonstrated snap judgments carry a powerful emotional charge, as they are associated with activity in the amygdala, a primitive brain structure, the seat of the fight-or-flight response.
Jochen Menges, a lecturer in organizational behavior at the University of Cambridge, terms the emotional impact of charisma the “awestruck effect.” He came up with the concept as a doctoral student in 2008, when he traveled to Berlin to hear Barack Obama speak in the hopes he might glean some new insights about how charismatic alchemy worked. When Obama bounded onto the stage and announced he was not just a citizen of the United States, but a citizen of the world, Menges himself was taken in. For a few minutes, Menges forgot why he was there — he was taken out of himself, became a follower.
When he looked around, he was fascinated. Everything he had read on charisma implied leaders worked their magic by making people feel good emotions. But this was not an animated, energized crowd. The entire crowd seemed frozen in place, entranced. Afterward, a woman next to Menges gushed that Obama’s speech was “amazing,” “wonderful,” and “awesome.” Yet when Menges asked her to name three things she liked about the speech, she couldn’t.
In a TED Talk, Menges explained that charismatic leaders put us in awe. “And because we admire them so much, we tend to hold back our emotions in an almost instinctive effort to show our deference to them, to acknowledge their superior status,” he said.
By recreating the “awestruck effect” in the laboratory — by inducing subjects to visualize and write about charismatic figures, and then showing them emotion-laden video clips — Menges demonstrated something profound. While the subjects’ external emotional expression may have been subdued, the subjective emotional experience of those who were “awestruck” was every bit as powerful as those who were not. Indeed, it was more so, as they simply suppressed it out of automatic deference. Psychologists have long known that when we suppress the expression of our emotions, not only do those emotions increase their intensity, but we suffer a cognitive detriment.
Menges found that students were far more likely to report they remembered the exact contents of speeches delivered by individuals who used charismatic speaking techniques that evoke emotions, than the content of speeches from individuals using a straightforward, non-charismatic mode of delivery. Yet written tests revealed those exposed to charismatic speakers remembered far less than those exposed to the non-charismatic speakers. Even so, when offered the chance to follow each speaker into a coffee room to discuss the ideas of their talks, the students almost never followed the boring speaker — and almost always followed the charismatic one.
This does not surprise Richard Boyatzis, who studies organizational behavior, psychology, and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. Using fMRI, Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, an experimental psychologist, have demonstrated that emotional speakers engage with a neural pathway called the default mode network (DMN). This pathway, also known as the task-negative network, spans multiple areas of the brain (including the amygdala) and is associated with
- thoughts about others, and
- remembering things in the past.
Interestingly, its activation is often found to be negatively correlated with the very circuits we rely upon for analytic thinking — those involved in
- executive functions,
- attention, and
- problem-solving. “
The problem is these two networks have almost no overlap,” Boyatzis said. “They suppress each other.”
In fact, beyond shutting down our ability to reason, some scientists have found that under the right circumstances, charismatics — especially if that charisma stems from our perception of them as a “leader” — can induce a state akin to hypnotism.
.. In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence — charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.
The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation — in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”
Schjødt explained his findings in the context of a theory called the “predictive coding framework.” The brain is essentially a pattern recognition machine, constantly making predictions. Our perception is a combination of our prior expectations — expressed in the form of these automatic predictions — and actual sensory perception. As long as the sensory information matches the predictions, the brain hums along. When there is dissonance, the brain steps into make a correction. But when we are around people we believe to have special powers or abilities — when we have made an implicit decision that we can trust them — we seem to unconsciously down-regulate our analytical thinking.
.. “If you expect to experience God, or you are in the presence of a charismatic or religious expert, then you believe whatever is going on is correct, and it will lead you to that particular experience, so you don’t invest too many resources in being skeptical and checking,” Schjødt said.
If charisma is a spark, and a willing audience is the kindling, the right chain of worldly events reveals charisma’s full explosive power. In his book Charisma in Politics, Religion and the Media, David Aberbach zeroes in on historical pivot points that set the stage for transformative events ignited by charismatic leaders.
“Charisma touches something deeper in society, which is not always apparent,” Aberbach told me. “The key is there are some unpredictable elements in the life of a country or the life of a group, and when there are moments of particular distress, then certain individuals come forward who would not have come forward previously. They represent something essential in the capacity to deal with the crisis. There is marriage between what is going on between them internally and whatever is going on externally.”
.. A charismatic leader, Aberbach said, “releases the individual of the pressures of life under stress. If you join a group in those circumstances, you feel more protected. But that presupposes the vulnerability of the individual. When individuals feel more secure, they have less need for salvation, less need for a charismatic bond. But when they feel vulnerable, then there is a possibility of a charismatic attachment. This can be very dangerous in certain circumstances.”
Aberbach, a noted academic at McGill University and the London School of Economics, points to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler — two sides of the historical coin — as telling case studies. They both grew out of Depression-era needs of their respective nations. And they illustrate how profound an influence an individual charismatic can have.
“In the case of Roosevelt, he represented the ability to fight back in time of adversity,” Aberbach said. “On a personal level, he had fought back, and he could represent the nation that was fighting back. As a person, he could represent the group. In that sense, he was charismatic. I think that’s what it comes down to. The nation or the group seeks that person that represents them at a given time, and it’s unconscious.”
In the case of Hitler, Aberbach said, “A lot of people felt good when they heard him. It’s often forgotten because newsreel clips often represent him as a sort of raving lunatic. But in fact people were taken into a different kind of realm, a different kind of existence, where they felt one with Germany, they felt a sense of national pride, they felt an aggressive hope in their future.”
Hitler, Aberbach continued, gave people “a target of hatred, which is a convenient means of giving people who feel broken in life a sense of superiority, and also the capacity to blame someone for everything that has gone wrong outside themselves. He takes away personal responsibility, which is great relief for people who feel burdened by responsibility. They needed to forget, they needed to be transformed in a condition of crisis. That’s why crisis and charisma are so closely linked.”
The scientists agreed that charisma grabbed us on an emotional level. They also agreed snap judgments and subconscious fears could be overcome. In his bestseller Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines two separate parallel decision circuits. The brain’s intuitive system is far faster than the rational system. The intuitive system, though, is prone to unconscious factors, based on limited personal experience and tendencies that result in irrational biases. But the slower, more rational system, centered in our prefrontal cortex, can serve as a potent check on unconscious tendencies — when we take the time to analyze them.
That was the final point Bart Campolo wanted to make about charisma: We could learn not to be taken in.
“You’re not going to stamp out charisma,” Campolo said. “The way to protect people from demagogues is not to kill all the demagogues but rather to teach people how charisma works so they can recognize whether it’s being wielded responsibly or abused. I always think charisma is like fire. You can use it to heat your house or you can use it to burn your house down.”