'A Toxic Leader Truly Believes That People Are Meant to Serve Him'

Following a charismatic leader is like falling in love – you don't see the flaws, says emeritus psychology professor Micha Popper

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Emeritus psychology professor Micha Popper.
Emeritus psychology professor Micha Popper.Credit: Rami Shllush
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Micha Popper, your field of research is leadership.

My academic career was preceded by an army career, in which I was occupied with the subject concretely, as the commander of the army’s school for leadership development. Leadership is a phenomenon that is studied by multiple disciplines – history, economics, sociology – and I deal with it as a psychological and social phenomenon.

I wanted to talk to you about the phenomenon known as “toxic leadership.”

Both Hitler and Nelson Mandela were leaders. One was negative and the other positive, but they both had a dramatic effect on people. In the professional literature, leaders of that sort, who are able to exert a strong influence on their audience, are termed “charismatic leaders.” If charismatic leadership involves influencing people, in cases of toxic leadership, people follow the leader blindly. Jim Jones caused 911 believers to commit suicide [in Guyana in 1979]. Some of them poisoned their children. He told them that the world is a terrible place and they followed him, until death. Is there a greater influence than that? Toxic leadership leads to ruin and destruction.

Sometimes it also starts from there. Take Hitler, who came to power against a backdrop of an economic, social and political crisis.

Leadership is a need of human beings. As it says in the Bible, “In whose father’s house there is clothing: ‘Come, be a chief over us’” [Isaiah 3:7]. We need figures like that, because in childhood we became accustomed to having two “large” figures look after us and see to our needs. We tend to feel a longing for that, particularly in times of crisis. Many historians point out that in a period of crisis, fascist currents are strengthened, because of the yearning for a strong person. Hitler is an excellent example, not least because he was democratically elected. In contrast to Stalin, for example, who came to power by brute force and ruled by brute fear.

Almost all the toxic leaders of our time were democratically elected.

Indeed. To understand the phenomenon of toxic leadership, we need to understand the law or the logic of the public who crave for the leader. Leadership is an emotional phenomenon, not a rational one. More than anything, it resembles falling in love. When we fall in love, we attribute a whole world of qualities to the person we love, we project things on them, we elevate them, until they become larger than life. That’s the mental state of those who follow the charismatic leader.

Let’s sharpen this: Not every charismatic leader is a toxic leader, but all toxic leaders are charismatic leaders.

The essential difference between the charismatic, toxic and destructive leader, and the positive charismatic leader lies in a narcissistic personality disorder. A clinical term. I have here on my desk the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], with a formal diagnosis of the narcissistic personality disorder. I’ll simply read you the criteria from the DSM, alright?


So here it is: “Has a grandiose logic of self-importance... Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; Believes that he or she is ‘special’ or unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other high-status people (or institutions); Requires excessive admiration; Has a sense of entitlement...”

Did you intentionally omit characteristics such as lack of empathy and using people as tools?

No. They are relevant, too, as the DSM description states: “Interpersonally exploitative... Lacks empathy... Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her; Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.” You have to understand that a person like this truly believes that people are meant to serve him, that everything is intended to serve him, and that he has no problem getting rid of people after they have fulfilled his need. When he stands on the stage, it’s actually compensation for his empty world. He is fighting for his life – in the psychological sense – and that is how he is so effective. Positive leaders don’t have this need. There isn’t this pit that they have to keep filling all the time. They aren’t dependent on the admiration of the public, they don’t feel that if that’s taken from them they’ll remain with nothing, so that leadership, from their point of view, is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of them retired, resigned or gave up leadership of their own volition.

Is a narcissistic personality disorder the basis of the difference between positive charismatic leadership, on the one hand, and negative or toxic charismatic leadership, on the other?

Hitler.Credit: Farabola / Leemage / AFP

Yes. Narcissism is a continuum. To be slightly narcissistic is actually a good thing for an athlete or a scientist, but we are talking here about the far end of the continuum. About the pathology. Those who have been toxic charismatic leaders attained their positions of leadership by chance, they weren’t brought up or earmarked for it. They haven’t displayed leadership abilities, nor was that their aspiration – leadership was actually a balm for them. People who grew up with them were surprised that they became leaders. There is an amazing story in Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. Hitler, who wanted to be an artist, was considered a failure his whole life. So much so that when he wanted to take the stage in the beer-hall cellars, there was hesitation about whether to let him. Yet, when he did take the stage, he stunned everyone.

In his personal life, he was a completely different person – lonely, haunted, anxious – but on the stage he was a star. He discovered how much strength he had when he spoke before an audience, how easy it was for him to hypnotize his listeners, and his life filled up with meaning. Kershaw also writes that it’s not clear how such a bland person, lacking social or intellectual skills, succeeded in shaking up Germany. That’s exactly the point. Hitler kept telling the Germans: I am the great leader, I will be your salvation, I will save Germany from the Treaty of Versailles. The crowd was thirsty for that.

Let’s talk a little about the rhetoric of the toxic leader. What exactly works on the crowd? How does the magician perform his magic?

The rhetoric of such leaders is emotional, it’s beyond a smooth or articulate delivery. It’s a question of appealing to primary emotions, such as fear, and of positioning oneself as a figure who will lead everyone to a safe haven. That’s also the rhetoric of most of the leaders of the destructive charismatic cults, such as [Charles] Manson, [Jim] Jones and David Koresh. The persuasion is first of all self-directed, and in the most striking cases they feel that this [role of leadership] is their mission, their life purpose. They are supposedly fighting for the lives of those they lead, but in practice they are fighting for their lives. Being onstage, and the feeling of the tremendous dependence of people on them, infuses their narcissistic being with meaning without which they have no life. Manson said in an interview that he enjoyed the feeling of power he got from those around him, he enjoyed being needed, he never felt better. In situations of being needed, whether it’s personal – as with many of cult members – or a group or national phenomenon, as in an economic crisis, that rhetoric works excellently, because it creates among listeners a sense of the leader’s greatness.

Even though it’s no more than a manipulation.

When we fall in love, we attribute a whole world of qualities to the person we love, we elevate them, until they become larger than life. That’s the mental state of those who follow the charismatic leader.

One of the studies that influenced me most was conducted by [anthropologist] Boaz Shamir. He asked 300 students to provide descriptive adjectives for leaders they were close to, people they have direct contact with, like teachers or platoon commanders, and also for remote leaders whom they had never met. He then compared the descriptions given to the two types of leaders. The main difference was that the descriptive terms for the leaders who were close were based on their behavior – such as “personal example” – whereas the descriptions attached to the “remote” leaders were larger than life. They were actually projections by the students, such as “visionary” and “inspirational.” Which is why there are leaders who were terrific in the army and failed in the political arena – because the psychology of those being led is completely different. When the leader is remote from the people, his ability to manipulate his audience is infinite, because you don’t see him, don’t really come into contact with him. Jim Jones met with his believers with a sheet separating them. He understood, intuitively, that he needed to be distant. Distanced. Remote leadership is super-emotional.

Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of the book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” has added several more traits to those you mentioned earlier. In her view, a leader of this sort, beyond his sense of grandiosity, manipulativeness and abilities to persuade believers of his greatness, lacks integrity, is corrupt and greedy and possesses a low moral standard.

Lipman-Blumen analyzed all kinds of leaders, including, for example, Lee Iacocca, who was a public relations wizard. He also lived like a sultan and succeeded in implanting the false narrative that it was he who saved Chrysler. Later it turned out that it was all a lie, that Chrysler’s recovery was not due to him. The thing is that people want stories about people, they don’t want to delve into all the complex processes undergone by the American economy and market. They want a father figure. A hero.

What about the low moral level, the greed?

What all these toxic leaders have in common is the grandiosity, the addiction to admiration and the lack of empathy, all stemming from the fact that they are so self-centered that they’re incapable of seeing others. The greed and the low morality are a result of the pathological narcissism. That is not necessarily found in every toxic leader. Not all toxic leaders are corrupt.

That’s only a bonus. Fortune smiled on us. A leader like that, after building up his following, also learns, on the go, how to activate it. That skill only improves. He homes in on the fears, on the weak points.

Indeed, but what you’re saying implies that he develops sensitivity toward the public. That’s not so. He develops a different type of sensitivity, and it’s here that he possesses the most acute radar. He understands where he’s revered, so that he can get more and more of that. He knows how to sustain those feelings, so that he will have his audience. He is incredibly sensitive to every fluctuation in admiration for him. He does not feel compassion, he does not really grasp the feelings of the other – only where the level of admiration is falling and where it’s rising.

When he talks to his audience in terms of survival, salvation and redemption, he is also marking the enemy for them, domestically or externally.

The [existence of the] common enemy strengthens both the group and its leader. That’s a recurring motif with all toxic leaders, and a very powerful one. There is an enemy, and I will save you. The ranks can be unified around that. That’s how Jim Jones persuaded people to commit suicide: The world is terrible, everyone is persecuting you, and only I can save you. I alone am the savior. Hitler with the knife-in-the-back myth, which was a potent ethos. Manson against the rich. Trump against the Chinese. David Koresh at the time.

That [motif] is also a lie – he doesn’t really save anyone.

Jim Jones.Credit: Nancy Wong

No, he only creates the illusion. We need that, too. It’s a pleasure to become addicted to that feeling.

Logic says, then, that societies in which there is a public that is excluded or discriminated against are more prone to toxic leadership.

That’s the ground that creates an opportunity for leadership of that sort. Because the emotions pass to the front of the stage, and the strongest emotions are those of fear and hatred. In tranquil places, where there are no external or internal threats, in places like Canada, the toxic leader cannot really flourish. He has no stage to utilize in societies like that.

It’s also interesting that the leader himself need not belong to the deprived public, suffice it that he fans feelings of discrimination.

Hatred, a sense of persecution and exploitation will drive people to opt for a leader who is perhaps not “one of them,” but who for them offers a triumphant response to persecutors and exploiters. I was at Harvard during Trump’s campaign. Within the university itself, my colleagues simply laughed at Trump; they thought he didn’t stand a chance. But in traveling to the campus by bus or subway, I heard working-class people talking. Not one of them was planning to vote for Clinton. They spoke with enthusiasm only about Trump, and I realized that I was completely out of touch. That I was in a bubble. Trump the millionaire is of course not one of the, but that makes no difference. They voted against the people they hate. The source of the charisma does not necessarily reside in the leader, but in his representation, which sparks feelings that resonate among those who are led – the desire to be saved, the identification, the feelings of resentment and the loathing for the other group. It’s a phenomenon that is completely emotional, so his [personal] functioning is not relevant.

In his personal life, Hitler was a completely different person – lonely, haunted, anxious – but on the stage he was a star. He discovered how much strength he had when he spoke before an audience, and his life filled up with meaning.

Clearly. After all, there is no one to replace him, and even if he fails, it’s only a sign that someone else would have failed worse.

You can fall in love with someone who is not good for you, who destroys your life – but you’re in love, you can’t stop yourself and you can’t see it. From your perspective, it’s good for you. Charismatic leaders are very adept at fanning such feelings, it’s embedded deep in their operating system, it’s intuitive for them. It’s absolutely an instinct. I am astounded when I see these endless analyses of how Trump defeated Hillary. People repeatedly insist on explaining an emotional phenomenon in rational terms. It just doesn’t work like that.

What about the time factor? How does the constant, years-long toxicity affect the consciousness of a people? When the unreasonable and the abnormal is constantly normalized, is there a point of no return, after which it’s no longer possible to be weaned from the toxic leader?

There are studies about a social-psychological phenomenon called “a foot in the door.” The idea is that a small step is taken each time, and gradually a sequence of steps is created, which create great change and which would not have happened if it were done all at once. There are studies of this in the realm of people who become newly religious or the success of charismatic priests. “Just come for Shabbat,” “Just learn one page of Gemara” [they are told], and every small step, which in itself is ostensibly not substantive, cumulatively creates commitment to a particular direction. From the moment that commitment is created, from the moment the critical mass is reached, the way back is very difficult. It’s known as “escalation of commitment.” Accordingly, one has to be alert to those processes and set up clear signposts.

I think it might be too late already.

You’re asking if the consciousness of a nation can be changed? To liberate it from toxicity? The example of Germany shows that it definitely is possible. If Hitler were to run for election in the sated and rich Germany of our time, with its social safety net, he would be a marginal phenomenon, if even that. The need for charismatic leaders is our natural default. To fix one’s gaze only on the leader’s pathological personality, is to overlook the tendency that exists in all of us to want a leader. Our default is to want someone who will take responsibility. We need to understand that this is not what is good for us. It has to be fought against relentlessly. That understanding is critical, because without it, the default will rule repeatedly, like the phenomenon of the new stars who crop up in every election campaign.

In that case, what can be done?

I will use an image that is relevant to the present time. What needs to be done is to develop an immune system in those who are led, which will be able to identify and fight the virus. In order to struggle against this blind default, which is a search for charismatic leaders, it’s necessary to cultivate critical thinking and create systemic trust – trust in the rules of the game, in the fairness of the rules and the governing institutions, in the balance of powers. When that’s the situation, our bias toward charisma loses something of its value.

It’s almost comic. To think what an effort was invested to shatter the systemic trust in Israel, in silencing and erasing critical thought. In many senses, the coronavirus crisis laid bare many toxic leaders. In countries where the leaders mobilized for the good of the public, they coped with the virus successfully. In countries such as Turkey, Brazil, the United States, Britain, Russia and Israel, it turned out that a show isn’t enough.

Sounds right. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I’ll tell you what I think. In the first wave, Netanyahu painted himself as having been successful in coping with the coronavirus. He would like to preserve that. That would glorify and empower him. Turn him into the great leader-savior. In the first wave his interest in being grandiose dovetailed with the needs of the public.

The narcissistic interest jibed with our aspiration to remain alive.

Yes, and therefore I think he has a problem now. Those who were against him all along are still against him, but many people suddenly understood that the Great Father is not all so great. That’s a problem. It’s now touching on basic emotions. That could generate a huge shake-up. A real one, this time.

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