How To Solve The Problem of Predatory Leadership
(Or How To End Centuries of Allowing The Worst Possible People
Into Positions of Power and Control Over Our Lives)
By Matt Kramer and Michael Harris, Ph.D.
In the interests of brevity, some statements in this article have been simplified and may be interpreted as too general. Generally, the more simple the statement the greater its capacity for error. However, in order to verify every statement, this article would need to be much, much longer. That work is yet to be done. I ask the reader to give the benefit of the doubt to the intention of the message in the writing.
“Those who know the least obey the best.”–George Farquhar
Aside from the sensationalist stories you read and see in the media, all of us suffer in some way from our exposure to predatory leaders, whether it is in our personal domestic and work place arenas or from the impact of government, corporate and other organizational entities. We read and talk about these people and the consequences of their actions and policies. But do we understand how they think and how they are able, over and over again, to attain those positions of power and control? Will we ever achieve a world in which all leaders are compassionate and fair and the service to all their constituents has good results? On the domestic end of this spectrum, will we ever evolve into a culture in which there are no marriages suffering from verbal abuse and violence?
Many people say the goal of a utopian society is too idealistic, that it is in our human nature to commit war and other forms of violence. If you are invested in that belief, you will sustain it. Small examples of utopia do exist around the planet. For six years I lived in a cohousing community, an environment free of the malevolent personalities described in this paper. The community was safe, everyone treated each other with grace and respect, and the children all thrived. I know that we can end the patterns of centuries of war and oppression and replace them with environments in which each of us can fulfill the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It will not come easily and it will not come soon. But the sooner we start, the sooner our children will be living in that utopia.
In order to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. Once we understand the nature of the predators and how they think, we can recognize them earlier in their lives and career. Rather than allow our ignorance to enable them to fool us into accepting or following them, our understanding will empower us to make better choices. Such a choice can be as simple as choosing someone else, either for a relationship or for promotion into a management position.
One of the important things to understand is that most people are kind, charitable and trusting. Ironically, those qualities often open us up to the predators who know how to take advantage of our most loving and helpful inclinations. As you study how predators are able to convince us to give them our power, you will see how various elements in our humanness and their pathology comprise a perfect formula that has allowed them to prevail for centuries. The more you learn, the less they will be able to take from you.
A friend recently told of a conversation she had with a man who started to read a book on metaphysics. The man said that he had to put the book down because he did not want to read anything that would challenge his faith in his religion.
This exercise in active denial reminds me of the polarization I often experience in my work as a professional mediator. Sometimes I get a call from someone who wants me to mediate a problem (maybe a divorce or a marital issue between people who do not want to get divorced). The caller will tell me an incredible story in which she or he is a victim who has done nothing wrong but they have been terribly hurt by the other party.
Then I have a conversation with that other party and, not only is the story is very different, but also the other person clearly feels like they are the innocent victim and that the other person (who originally called me) is the one who has been horrible and unfair.
In reality, both sides contributed to the problem. And solutions will only come when both sides acknowledge both their responsibility and the pain experienced by the other side. Usually people in conflict will not allow themselves to have empathy for the experience of the person on the other side of that conflict. They fear it will weaken the righteousness of their position. As a result, both sides work to widen the gap between them, demonizing the other side and often creating a breach so painful that it can never be healed. The predatory leaders excel at exploiting this very human trait to further their policies and agendas.
Among thousands of examples past and present, a powerful example of this dynamic is currently running between Israel and Palestine. On both sides there are people who have done evil things to the other. Caught up in the middle are millions of mostly innocent people who are influenced to be polarized against each other. Like the religious man who is afraid to read a book on metaphysics, each side refuses to acknowledge the humanity of the other, instead demonizing the other as hopelessly evil and inhumane.
How did this polarization start? While I know only a little about the centuries of history leading up to now, I don’t believe it rose from the masses as a spontaneous truth. Momentous events were instigated and directed by political powers who dictated policies and activities that contributed to war. Demonizing the “other” was nurtured by leaders from both sides who profited from the resulting strife. In reality, those polarized leaders needed each other in order to exercise their agendas. Without an evil “other” to blame, the predatory leader would not have been able to gain as much control or profit, or accomplish as much damage as he did. Further demonizing was nurtured long enough and in so many ways so that it seeped deeply into the souls of enough people that eventually a majority of the population came to believe there is no way for full reconciliation.
A major premise of my work on predatory leadership is that, everywhere, most people are good. Most people do not want to cause harm to others. I have traveled through many countries around the world; my experience almost universally is that people are decent to each other.
In regard to places in the news where there is civil war and racial and religious strife, I contend that the instigators of those problems comprise a small percentage of the population. A combination of tactics, including propaganda, misinformation and illegal operations begin the process of polarization. For a number of reasons, the voices of aggression loudly drown out the voices of peace.
Among the most influential and effective of the culprits are a small percentage of people who have been identified as having brains that function differently than most of us. The differences include (1) an inability to experience empathy, (2) a lack of capacity for conscience or to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They also have (3) a sense of entitlement that, in their mind, justifies any action that helps to achieve their agenda, no matter who, or how many, are hurt or killed in the process. Wherever there is opportunity, they will compete ruthlessly for it. And often they will win. In some areas of study, these people are called sociopaths. According to Martha Stout, author of “The Sociopath Next Door”, 4% of our population – one person in every twenty-five – can be clinically diagnosed as a sociopath.
When combined with intelligence, the focused combination of narcissistic entitlement, lack of conscience and lack of empathy makes for a mercilessly efficient and successful competitor for positions of leadership. There is a fourth factor that is very important to understand because it is one way that these people can be recognized early in their career or in your relationship with them. In their minds, they are the only victim. Nothing is ever their fault; everything is always somebody else’s fault. “If I hurt you, it is your fault; you made me do it.” Does that sound familiar?
Take a moment and think about how seamlessly these four behaviors work together. An abusive personality or a sociopath (like squares and rectangles, there are subtle differences but the behavior is fairly consistent) will feel victimized by anything that anyone does that interferes with his goals or intentions. He will steep himself in falsely righteous anger and use that anger to either strike back immediately or to strategize a way to strike back covertly in a way that may not be traceable back to him. Because, as an abusive personality, he lacks empathy for the pain he causes others, and he lacks any sense of conscience or responsibility as well, he has no internal mechanisms that would ever stop him from repeating this behavior over and over again impacting the lives of many people during the course of his life.
One would think that it should be easy to pick a good leader over an exploitive and self-serving leader. The qualities that make for great leaders, who have a strong sense of conscience and compassion for their fellow humans, work against them if they treat an abusive personality with equal respect. The unethical tools and strategies easily available and used by the predators are out of the question for the potential leader of conscience. Those tools stack the deck heavily in favor of the predator; the leader of conscience usually doesn’t stand a chance.
This could explain how national leaders such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung were able to connive and murder their way into power. It also explains how many such people have worked their way into middle and top leadership in corporations, government agencies, religious and educational institutions, and other organizations. Have you ever dealt with a government or corporate representative who could have made your life easier but instead made it painfully worse? You may have encountered a sociopath on the job.
When capable people of good intent are asked to run for office, they often reply that they do not have the stomach, much less the interest, to do what it would take to succeed. By refusing to step forward, they leave a vacuum easily filled by self serving opportunists whose lack of conscience makes for a strong stomach for the dirty work ahead.
It is important to understand that in most cases, these operators do not act alone. In some cases they are able to charm people into believing and supporting them. In other cases, they produced results that helped them to get promotions into levels of power in which they became virtually untouchable. Sometimes their credentials are phony but their sales pitch is so convincing that the gatekeepers never consider doing the legwork to verify the resumes. There are cases of backstabbing, blackmail, and other illegal methods used to gain access to the top levels of power.
The same behavior can be found in the more local arena of domestic violence. Abusive relationships often start with the abuser being charming and likable, even lovable. Once the victim is deeply connected emotionally and controlled (by marriage, pregnancy or financial dependence), the abuse surfaces, often in an insidious way that makes the victim believe that the abuse is her fault, that she deserves it.
When you compare the behavior of the person who commits domestic violence with the behavior of the leader who commits international violence, you will see the same symptoms. I discovered this when Slobodan Milosevic was in the Hague on trial for war crimes. During his trial he played two roles. Acting as his own lawyer representing himself, he bullied the witnesses on the stand. But when he was on the stand himself, he was a victim crying about how badly he was being treated, and that he had done nothing wrong. In the process, he often manipulated and distracted the attention of the court. As I read about this behavior of a leader accused of instigating genocide, I realized that his behavior was exactly the same as the domestic abuser who verbally abuses or beats his wife.
Saddam Hussein did the same thing when he was on trial in Iraq. In verbal abuse, the abuser often manipulates the conversation by using all kinds of distracting techniques that keep the victim off balance. These techniques include half truths, distortions, targeted and vicious sarcasm, jokes at the expense of the victim, name calling, trivializing the victim’s thoughts and feelings, abusive anger, blocking and diverting attempts at clarification, scapegoating, blaming the victim for the abuser’s anger, manipulating information and more. These are examples of the many tools available to sociopaths and abusers. Some therapists describe these behaviors as “crazy-making”. What crazy-making does is keep the abuser in control. In the trials of Milosevic and Hussein, the judges often had to exert extra effort to maintain control of the courtroom.
In the case of war, the abuser’s task is to convince the public of two things. One, their problems are the fault of other people, either racially, religiously, politically or nationally.
Two, the abuser convinces the victim population that he has the answer for them, and that he is going to take care of them – elect him, join his army, join his church, he will protect you from the enemy and everything will turn out wonderful.
When you study the path a country takes to war, you will often see a process described by social psychologists called the foot-in-the-door-syndrome. The theory is that if you make a small request of someone, one that does not ask too much of them, most likely, given our nature as social beings, they will oblige. Having said yes once, if they are later asked to respond to a slightly larger request, most likely they will say yes again. This is one of the principles that enabled the “teachers” in Stanley Milgrim’s experiments on obedience to progressively give, under the direction of “authorities”, what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to their “students”.
In the case of the religious cult, it is not that the victim will not want to read books of other forms of spirituality, it will be against the law of that religion to read any books other than the ones that support the religious order in power. Certainly books that empower critical thinking and alternative points of view are not allowed in North Korea or Burma. Complete control is exercised over access to any outside information, powerfully limiting the victims’ opportunities to make informed decisions.
The four symptoms I described earlier, narcissistic entitlement, lack of conscience, lack of empathy, and an elevated sense of victimhood, show up everywhere in all societies around the world. They are very obvious in the home environment of domestic abuse. And they are evident among the policy makers in the top levels of government and in the corporate penthouse suites. Record label executives routinely execute contracts and make decisions that ruin the lives of the artists they are supposed to represent. Corporate CEOs lay off thousands of loyal employees to increase their bottom line by employing severely underpaid laborers overseas. Manufacturers release products that are unhealthy or dangerous to the buyers. Manufacturing, oil, mining and lumber companies pollute and destroy thousands of square miles of our land. News organizations promote political agendas by heavily slanting their representation of the news, reducing the opportunities for their subscribers to access objective information. Everything described here represents decisions by owners or top management that benefit the decision makers without regard to damage done to others in the process. This is predatory leadership.
Many will say that there is no solution, this is human nature; it has always been this way and it will always be this way. This same kind of thinking most likely occurred during the centuries in which slavery was legal in the United States. Yet, the business and practice of institutionalized slavery eventually did become illegal in the U.S. We can also transform those of our behaviors that enable predatory leadership and, instead, take responsibility to nurture, encourage and support capable people with conscience and compassion to take on the role of leadership.
This will involve a number of careful steps and, given that predatory leadership has been the status quo for centuries, we need to have the discipline and patience to work for at least several generations to create a complete shift in this dynamic. Given that most of us prefer instant gratification, especially when it comes to solving large and difficult problems, this may be our biggest obstacle to achieving a utopian society.
One way to do this is to bring this concept, this theory of predatory leadership, out of the closet and into the sunlight of public knowledge and dialogue. Most of us learn at a very early age that bees sting. We learn that the stove has the potential to burn us. We learn to be careful when we meet a strange dog. But we do not learn to recognize signs of narcissism or controlling behavior that will eventually lead to an abusive relationship. And we are not taught to recognize the manipulative techniques of propaganda or how we can be manipulated by duplicitous advertising into supporting political leaders who betray our public trust.
Woody Harrelson once said, “What you suppress, you empower”. Our ignorance and denial of this problem enables it to continue. Predatory leaders, from domestic to international arenas, gain their power by keeping most of their tools and methods hidden from public view. As we learn to recognize the behaviors that divide, isolate and oppress, we will also learn how not to be controlled and victimized by those behaviors. In the domestic arena, the victim is gradually cut off from friends and family so that the primary contact is with the abuser. In the public arena, people and ideas resistant to the policies of the predatory leaders are initially isolated by scapegoating – blamed for the problems and/or identified as being resistant to the solutions offered by the predators.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that the more simple an explanation, the greater its capacity to be wrong. Predatory propaganda capitalizes on this, making sweeping statements that have more falsehood than truth, but enough truth that uneducated listeners buy the whole line.
An example is the word, liberal. Two online dictionaries provide similar definitions along the lines of, “free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant, open to new ideas”. In the political campaigning of the first decade of this century, a loudly vocal sector of the political spectrum refers to liberals as “communists, socialists, and people who hate freedom”. The result was that many people who are liberal in their perspectives began to modify or hide their beliefs from public view. Scapegoating tactics like this are often the first step towards a totalitarian environment. They were the first steps to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the ethnic cleansing in Serbia and to the genocidal murders of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda. Learning to recognize the nature of scapegoating and other divisive tactics and publicizing the true nature of these tactics will help reduce and hopefully eliminate their use.
Another powerful counter to the intentions of predatory leaders is to reduce and eliminate how they use conflict to divide people and to turn groups of people against each other. The primary reason conflict has so much impact throughout the world is that few people truly understand the nature of conflict. Like fire, conflict exists for a reason. Used properly, it is a helpful tool, a source of information and insight that can lead to constructive change. But if one person’s tools for handling conflict are different than another’s, the difference shows up in behaviors that offend both parties. Over time, the original problem becomes minor compared to the greater problem that each is negatively triggered and reactive to the conflict behavior of the other. Eventually the primary experience of the relationship is through stress, tension and feelings of disrespect. As a result, for example, a marriage that could have easily been saved is destroyed. A war that should never have happened becomes inevitable.
From schoolyard fights to marital battles to wars between nations, if the participants, in good faith, used mediation or other conflict management skills as a first resource to problem solving, all fights would be resolved. The key phrase here is, “in good faith”. When people want to find a peaceful solution, they will find it. Mediation skills are not rocket science. When all members of a family, or a school, or top level management are trained in the use of congruent conflict management skills, problems no longer become fights. They become opportunities to improve understanding and relationships between everybody.
There are simple mediation programs available, such as Barbara Porro’s “Talk It Out” program that trains elementary school children how to handle their own conflicts in ways that are satisfactory to all participants in the conflict. If mediation training becomes included in our children’s curriculum on a nationwide basis, within a few years we will see greatly reduced levels of conflict throughout all aspects of society.
To summarize, we can reverse humanity’s pattern of giving power to the kinds of duplicitous leaders who have been pulling the wool over our eyes for centuries. Below is a four step draft idea about how to achieve this goal. If you have better ideas that could improve this process, please let us know.
The first step – bring the problem out of the closet and learn to recognize the behavior of sociopathic and abusive personalities, and to understand how our nature, as trusting and well intentioned people, plays perfectly into the strategies of predatory personalities.
Second step – meet with others who are willing to take on the challenge and begin brainstorming solutions. These problems are thousands of years in the making; we are conditioned to accept them as natural human behavior. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease, most of us do not hear the voices of those who do live more peacefully together, no matter how great their differences.
Third step – create strategies to prevent and alternatives to divert toxic personalities from getting into power, in personal lives as well as business, government, military and other arenas of human endeavor.
Fourth step – educate our youth to learn the first three steps, provide them with effective conflict management skills and, teaching by example, empower them with the optimism to include these skills as part of their legacy for future generations.
I do not have all the answers. The more of you who bring your wisdom, experience and intellect to the table, the sooner we will be able to create effective strategies for creating a world in which all children will have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.