The Lesson of the Narcissistic Leader
Last night I had a dream that weird things kept happening, and weird strangers kept showing up at my door saying things I didn’t understand. Then it turned out I was having a complete mental break, and the “strangers” were friends and family trying to help me come back to reality.
I’m sure this has nothing to do with our current situation.
I’ve started and stopped so many posts in the last couple of months, but honestly I kept getting overwhelmed. There’s so much happening so quickly, and it’s hard to talk about workplace culture when your entire country is on the brink.
We’re not nearly out of the woods yet, but we have a moment to breath now. And breathing, to me, means processing. It’s challenging to deal with how many voters have a blind allegiance to a megalomaniacal con man, and I’ve been struggling with understanding it.
Like many in quarantine, I’ve been watching a lot on streaming. A couple years ago I caught a couple episodes of Scientology: The Aftermath online, and now that the entire series has come onto Netflix, I’ve been catching up with the rest. There was a lot I already knew about the problems of the “religion”, but what I found particularly interesting watching it at this point in time was the vast number of parallels I started to see to Trump conservatives. And in fact, all of the things we can learn about by looking at both.
There are a lot of uncanny similarities between Trump and L. Ron Hubbard. Which should not really be surprising, since both men are/were malignant narcissists. And although I don’t think I can ever completely understand why people found either man compelling, I do find it interesting to think about their leadership styles, and why those styles, though effective in the short term, are ultimately destined to lead to disaster.
And though it is difficult sometimes to look at their impact and the damage they have done, we can learn a lot about what a truly good leader looks like by examining the bad.
Whether thinking about the kind of leader you want to be, or the kind of leader you want to follow, here are some things to consider.
Abusing a Need for Identity vs Supporting a Need for Identity
One thing that seems very consistent for a number of people who initially joined Scientology was a desire for something more in life. People felt disconnected from the world. They may have felt neglected or ignored in daily life. They wanted a life with meaning. They wanted to be important and a part of something bigger.
Similarly, a large number of Trump supporters are clearly feeling disaffected with the movement of society. Many belong to rural communities that are struggling with lack of industry and resources. Many are scared by the changing demographics of our country, and the possibility of a world that doesn’t revolve around white men. They want simplicity and clarity in a world that is complex and complicated. With many valid issues of concern, they are looking for answers, and have glommed onto the idea that all of their problems are caused by socialist liberals and identity politics.
Both groups use their membership in these communities to feel superior in their identity. Only they know the truth, only they see the conspiracies around us.
The use of identity to obtain followers is a powerful strategy. We all have a need for belonging, and it is easy to feel like the odd person out in so many ways. But identifying with the wrong group can have severe costs.
A good leader encourages group identity, but not the use of superiority. Everyone should feel like they matter and have something of value to add, but not at the cost of others.
Identity in a Cage vs Identity without Barriers
So yes, these groups give people a strong sense of identity. But there is a catch-22 here. Because your identity is extremely restricted within these groups. Once you divert from the norm, you quickly become an outsider.
There is a reason that both communities are extremely white, misogynistic, and homophobic. Both groups are steeped in white supremacy and patriarchy. Victims are blamed for their own assaults. LGBTQ individuals are exiled and reviled. Children are forced to conceal their true selves just in order to survive. People may claim that they are accepting, but fall out of line, and you will quickly find yourself alone.
Their love is not unconditional.
A good leader values group identity, but also individual identity. They know that diversity provides strength. Differences of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability are not to be feared, but engaged with and understood.
Controlling Information vs Transparency
This is a big one. Because no authoritarian leader can rise without the use of propaganda. And if you look at both groups, again there are some startling similarities in the use of information.
Both groups consider mainstream media biased and evil. There is a secret agenda, and only they are smart enough to see it. Why would they read any other perspectives? Their path is superior and there is no need to see any other way.
This is, of course, a strategic thing. Hubbard was rightfully being called out by the press for starting a cult, so simply demanded that his followers didn’t consume any news about their practice. Similarly, though Trump didn’t start the practice of disparaging the “liberal media”, he was only able to promote his idea of “fake news” thanks to the long time practice of the GOP in pushing their followers to only consume far right media.
A good leader never prevents their people from consuming different perspectives. If your way is truly the best, you know there will be data to support it. You know it will stand up to scrutiny and questions. You are transparent with your people, because you have nothing to hide.
Managing Through Fear vs Managing Through Hope
Once an authoritarian has control over the media for their followers, there’s another common thread. The use of fear.
Many ex-Scientologists, especially those raised in the church, speak of how they were taught that the world is a horrible and cruel place, and all non-Scientologists are terrible people. It was only Scientology that would save the world.
And yet, once they left, they realized that the people who opened their arms, who provided safety and understanding and compassion, were not the people they were taught to see as superior.
Similarly, Trump followers think that us on the liberal left have a socialist (and often gay) agenda. Interestingly, many of those who cry about socialism don’t actually seem to understand what it is, and often end up criticizing policies that are based more in capitalism, or the actions of private companies. But it’s not actually about the foundations of different political theory. It’s about a boogeyman, where right wingers can pull it out of the closet and scream “BOO!” and their followers will react accordingly.
A good leader inspires. They acknowledge the challenges and validate the pain of their people. But they also encourage hope that things can be better for all of us.
Compassion as Weakness vs Compassion as Core Value
Superiority is a very dangerous thing. A vast number of the worst things to happen in humanity have a core of superiority at the center. Once you believe yourself superior, and see others as inferior, their humanity starts to slip away in your eyes. And once that humanity is gone, it is easy to see them as expendable.
Scientologists who fall out of line or question their organization are treated incredibly inhumanly. Children have been sent to work camps, women have been forced to hug their rapists, and people have been openly abused for daring to question their leader. There is no compassion for those who are struggling with mental illness, as Hubbard, unable to accept his own diagnosis of mental illness, proclaimed war on the entire practice of psychology.
As for Trump followers, the “snowflakes” on the left are far too sensitive, a bunch of babies who overreact to everything. The MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and other social justice efforts are simply women and people of color crying about things that are our own fault. Systemic issues are just a myth and we all just need to yank harder on our bootstraps.
But the saddest thing is that they genuinely don’t understand why someone might put others first or care about what happens to them. The number of people unwilling to wear a mask or socially isolate shows the result of this in grim detail.
A good leader models empathy and compassion. They understand that there are things that are important for the community as a whole, and it is not just about us as individuals.
Attacking Critics vs Engaging with Critics
This one would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The inability of the malignant narcissist to handle any criticism is so foreign to someone like me, who self criticizes constantly. And yet, like allowing outside information, allowing criticism could provide a crack through which people could slip free.
Hubbard instituted a policy practice of “fair game”, still used to this day, in which critics of Scientology are harassed and disparaged in an attempt to discredit them. Private detectives are hired to conspicuously follow people, and even do such things as stealing trash from victims to find something that can be used against them. They’ve harassed journalists, lawyers, even IRS agents. There are records of them attempting to frame critical individuals for crimes and to have them ruined financially.
And with Trump? Watch any speech he’s ever given. His followers go where his example leads. There is no such thing as valid criticism. He’s only ever been perfect, and done perfect things. All of the problems are caused by the other side, and if the other side just went away, the world would be perfect.
A good leader understands that it is impossible to be perfect. Mistakes will happen. Failures will happen. Yet we always have room to grow and learn. Engaging productively with criticism is an important part of that.
Placing Blame vs Seeking Accountability
Closely connected with the above, another lovely little characteristic of the narcissist is the inability to accept blame. Hubbard literally placed himself as an infallible deity-like figure, who would issue policies and expect complete obedience. And for any person under him who suffered? It was their own fault. People who were victimized were being “paid back” for something they must have done in a previous life.
In Trump’s case, there are countless articles written about this phenomenon. He will cycle through various others to blame, but absolutely never take responsibility for anything himself. In the most humorous moments, he blames Hilary Clinton, despite her never actually holding the office. In the most tragic, he blames others for the over 200,000 deaths from Covid, when he holds the greatest responsibility for his lack of action.
A good leader holds themselves accountable. They are able to say “I was wrong, and I am sorry.” And however difficult, they work to make things right.
Profit Above All vs Profit After People
The title really says it all here. Hubbard started his cult for money. Trump is vastly in debt, and using his claims of election fraud to con his followers into donating money to fund his survival. Abusing others and the obtainment of wealth are deeply connected in our world.
A good leader thinks of their people first. Prioritizing your people often can result in greater productivity and profit, but that’s not the main reason for doing it. They care about their people because people are worth caring about.
One final thing.
Although the techniques used by both groups are insidious and strategic, there is still an element of willful ignorance and personal responsibility that we can’t ignore. There is so much information out there that is easily accessible. But it is difficult to break out of an unhealthy mindset, especially when you’ve never been taught to question, especially when everyone around you is pushing you to stay the course.
Yet when I see the ex-Scientologists who have broken free, taken responsibility for how they have hurt others, and working to bring the current institution down, it is a valuable reminder that there is no time limit on having an awakening. Some of these people were born into the cult, and it was all they knew. Yet there was a moment, sometimes tragic, that helped them see the truth. And now it seems possible that Scientology will face a reckoning.
I don’t know if I believe this will happen for many Trump voters. Just like how many flat-earthers have moved their conspiracy beliefs to QAnon, people who want the world to be simple and under complete control are unlikely to become advocates for social justice.
But…for those that do. For those that will learn, will change, will take responsibility, will work to be better. We’ll be here when it happens.