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Ideology, Conflict, and Leadership

Quotes from Otto F. Kernberg, M.D.
Quote Selection & Organization, Original Photographs: Thomas Altfather Good

für Angela DiNapoli




INTRODUCTION: Of Men and Machines


In any group the phenomenon of 'activated mass psychology' - projection of the ego ideal (transfer of personal responsibility) on to a leader - grants the idealized leader power over the group and its members. According to Otto Kernberg this "idealization corrupts its object" - leaders can become narcissistic, paranoid, or both. This can have devastating consequences. Regression in the leader can trigger regression in the group, creating an infinite loop.


"The projection of the ego ideal onto the idealized leader eliminates individual constraints along with the higher functions of self-criticism and responsibility that are mediated by the superego." -- Otto Kernberg



Severely regressed leaders use a variety of tools to keep and expand their power, including: creating a soothing ideology (becoming a "Merchant of Illusions") for the dependent and a scapegoat or two for the paranoid.


"When socially determined excess of power is vested in the leadership, or a historically determined excessive power vested in the leadership transforms functional authority into authoritarian power, the conditions are ripe for misuse of such power in the discharge of surplus aggression..." -- Otto Kernberg

The following quotations are taken from Otto F. Kernberg's Ideology, Conflict, and Leadership in Groups and Organizations

IDEOLOGY: The Philosophy of the Situation Comedy


"The application of a simplistic morality to political and social matters, the philosophy of the situation comedy, one might say, applied to the social scene, takes the form of ideological cliches."


"[A]ny simplistic generalization or ideology that permeates the group may be easily transformed into a conviction of absolute truth."


"[C]haracteristic of totalitarian ideologies is a conventional and conformist set of moral principles that regulate individual behavior... Fundamentalist religious groups focus this morality most specifically on the sexual behavior of the individual - in effect mounting a massive defense against individual freedom to integrate erotism and tenderness."


"[Large] groups are conventional, ideologically simplistic, conformist, and able to indulge themselves without guilt or gratitude; they lack a sense of personal responsibility or a deep investment in others."


"Individuals who resist this banal, cliche-ridden atmosphere and try to maintain a semblance of individuality are the ones most attacked."


"The combination of paranoid ideologies and well-functioning bureaucracies may be dangerous to human survival."

CONFLICT: Ideological Regression and Surplus Aggression


"To follow the idealized leader of the mob blindly, as described by Freud, reconstitutes a sort of identity by identification with the leader, protects the individual from intragroup aggression by this common identity and the shared projection of aggression to external enemies, and gratifies dependency needs through submission to the leader."


"It is important to consider the extent to which the ideology rationalizes the use of aggression and actually fosters it against out-groups. When this occurs...there is a great need to dehumanize all relationships other than those of the in-group."


"[T]he narcissistic leader's aspirations center around primitive power over others, the desire for admiration, even awe, and the wish to be admired for personal attractiveness, charm, and brilliance, rather than for mature human qualities, moral integrity, or creative leadership."


"Since narcissistic leaders tend to surround themselves with yes men and shrewd manipulators who exploit their narcissistic needs, more honest and therefore critical members of the staff are pushed aside."


"Under extreme conditions, leaders with severely narcissistic and paranoid tendencies may exert a sadistic control over the organization, with devastating consequences for themselves and everybody in it."


"Inadequate leaders of a bureaucratic structure, particularly a leader with severely narcissistic and paranoid tendencies, may transform a regressed bureaucratic system into a social nightmare. Such leaders expect and foster subservient behavior by their subordinates, reward the idealization of the leadership, and are prone to persecute those whom they sense to be critical of them."

LEADERSHIP - Malignant Narcissism and Bureaucratic Sadism


"The incapacity to commit oneself to any value system beyond self-serving needs usually indicates severe narcissistic pathology."


"[T]he principal cause of authoritarianism ... is the motivated discrepancy between explicit [...] goals and the administrative structure."


"[In failure the leader] is tempted to replace rational analysis with an attack on scapegoats or a radical bureaucratization or ritualization of organizational functioning.."


"The most extreme form of paranoiagenic leadership is represented by leaders whose personality is characterized by malignant narcissism -- that is a narcissistic personality combined with ego-syntonic sadism, paranoid tendencies, and antisocial features."


"The leader whose unconscious sadism is expressed in contention among subordinates, by contrast, tends to be protected for a long time from being recognized as the true locus of origin of the conflicts."


"The inability to form mature judgments about people and the reliance on sycophants reinforce each other and can lead to to a situation in which the narcisstic leader is surrounded by people similar to himself, people suffering from other serious behavior disorders or cynically exploiting their awareness of his psychological needs."

MASS PSYCHOLOGY: The Temptations of Conventionality


"To the extent that adults consume mass culture, they become conventional."


"Most people submerge themselves temporarily in the conventionality of mass culture for recreational purposes; for some, conventionality becomes a permanent prison."


"The barely disguised gratification in fantasy of aggressive impulses as part of mass culture is central to its appeal."


"Anonymous work [...] is complemented by anonymous mass entertainment that permits the projection of internal aggression onto external mass events."


"It may be that under extreme circumstances, the paranoid regression of an entire society maintains the sanity of the tyrant."


"What, for example, is the meaning of "well adjusted people" in totalitarian regimes?"

CONCLUSION: Eros and Civilization


"If to work and to love are the principal tasks in life, creative development within organizations should permit Eros to be placed at the service of work and work to be placed at the service of (sublimated) love. The main objective is not to satisfy the human needs of its members but to carry out a task: one objective of intelligent leadership is to permit the gratification of human needs in carrying out that task."

All Photographs © 2015 Thomas Altfather Good





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