Big Smile, No Teeth: We're living in an era of scarily narcissistic leaders


  • Living
  • Monday, 26 Aug 2019

Concept of selfishness and narcissistic. Silhouette of a selfish man putting on a crown, crowning himself, servants bow to him. Narcissism, narcissists, narcissistic. Leaders, selfish, lack of empathy. Donald Trump.

With the rising tide of populist politics and so-called strong man leaders surging, it truly is an amazing time to be alive.

For one, we live in a moment where countries have to make statements that large portions of their land are not for sale as the Danish PM had to announce in President Trump’s direction after reports that the wannabe strong man leader was discussing the merits of the United States purchasing Greenland.

We also live in a time when leaders release promotional videos of themselves shooting targets on horseback – yes, we’re looking at you, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan.

The other interesting part about all this is getting to see an era of “strong man” rule up close.

In history books, authoritarian rule – when a single leader makes most of the decisions leaving very little autonomy to the people they actually govern – seems like a conscious choice, almost like a strategy.

But up close, witnessing it first hand, it seems much more obvious that it’s a side effect of being ruled by a narcissist.

A 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review notes that narcissists can be “unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, they become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbour the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success”.

Unrealistic dreamers? Like releasing videos of yourself shooting every target while riding a horse? Or unproductive like holding election-style rallies to bolster your ego even though there’s no election coming up? Yeah, those are both things we’ve seen in this era. And watching them happen firsthand, they seem just a byproduct of a fragile ego that needs reinforcing.

Knowing all this, the constant rallies of the past from infamous leaders like Benito Mussolini of Italy, or Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu (whose father was too drunk when filing his birth certificate to remember he already had a son named Nicolae, which is enough to give anyone a complex) when re-examined are really just feel good parties.

These leaders felt good standing on a pulpit while people cheered them on. It wasn’t a leadership strategy, it was an infantile need to banish their own insecurity. Which, when manifested by puff piece videos showing what a crack shot the dear leader is, or dumb news reports about how Greenland isn’t for sale, are sort of amusing.

The problem is, when you’re a world leader, you’re sort of leading part of the world; the problem is right there in the name. It’s sort of funny if the narcissistic loud mouth down the street is angry at the wind, it’s a little scarier if that guy is leading the military strength of a nation.

The thing is, narcissists can make great leaders. Yes, really.

The superstar CEOs of the 2000s were examples of a narcissistic style of leadership. Before this, CEOs rarely stuck their heads up, preferring to stay faceless behind carefully crafted press releases.

But the advent of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk all put forward a kind of leadership that was seen as more dynamic, more inspiring. And that is where narcissists really shine.

Narcissists can be charming, charismatic leaders who attract and stimulate followers. Not that any of the moguls mentioned above are narcissists, just that their style can be labelled as such.

In truth, we’re all a little narcissistic. And there is normal narcissism. But it’s when it’s pathological, narcissism can be a real detriment. And as we’ve seen with current leaders, the narcissists’ success only reinforces their self-belief, which can lead to exacerbating their negative qualities.

And narcissists have some major problems. They’re sensitive to criticism, don’t listen well, and lack empathy. These are not great traits in someone you’re looking to lead a country. Which leads me to this crazy (not crazy) idea: Why don’t we test our political leaders for pathological narcissism?

There are mental hurdles in aviation. You can’t just sign up to be an air traffic controller and suddenly have hundreds of lives on the line. There’s training and psych evaluations to make sure you don’t freak out and decide it’d be pretty for the two green dots on your screen to meet.

So why isn’t there some kind of psychological testing done on political candidates? All you need to run a country is to show up and dupe a bunch of people into believing your rhetoric? It seems a little insane. Driving a car requires a license. Shouldn’t it be the same with running a nation?


Avid writer Jason Godfrey – a model who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.


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