David Gergen: Donald Trump's behavior fits the description of a narcissistic leader
He cites research that narcissists can be effective leaders unless they fall into trap of lacking self-restraint
Editor’s Note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at The Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump’s behavior on stage Thursday night and in the days that have followed strike many as unfathomable: How can anyone act so arrogantly and meanly in public life? But in fact, there is a large body of academic and other work that helps to explain. Just Google the literature on “narcissistic leadership” and you will instantly recognize Trump – both his bright and dark sides.
Narcissists have been called out since ancient times, of course. A Greek myth told the story of a proud young man who disdained those who loved him and instead fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Unable to leave his reflection, he drowned. His name: Narcissus.
A century ago, Sigmund Freud famously identified three basic personality types: erotics (those who love and need to be loved), obsessives (more inner-directed), and narcissists (those fixated with themselves and who crave adoration, not love).
More recently, Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist who has counseled governments and corporations for decades, has written the most accessible and popular work on narcissistic leaders. In my view, his article in the Harvard Business Review in 2004 remains the best short essay on the subject in the past several years.
Maccoby recognizes that Freud’s three types overlap in many of us and that all of us have a degree of narcissism. Self-esteem helps us survive and meet our basic needs in life. Maccoby goes on to argue that in turbulent, uncertain times, societies actually need narcissistic leaders. They tend to be strong people like Trump with large vision, lots of charisma, oratorical magnetism and a powerful drive to get results. They are less concerned with dangers in the future than with transforming it.
He calls these “productive narcissists” and includes among their ranks Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as recent corporate leaders like Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. (He doesn’t name but presumably would include Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir.)
But there are traps for “productive narcissists” – and here’s where the Trump saga gets interesting. As narcissistic leaders experience one success after another, they face a danger of believing more and more in their own infallibility and less in the judgment of others.
Maccoby writes, “Consider how an executive at Oracle describes his narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison: ‘The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.’”
Freud argues, and Maccoby agrees, that narcissistic leaders can become increasingly isolated and distrustful of others. They develop thin skin and lash out when questioned. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for all his brilliance, publicly humiliated his subordinates. In more extreme cases, they become relentless and ruthless; their response to critics turns into apparent vengeance. Sound familiar?
Experience shows, says Maccoby, that productive narcissists can best avoid these traps by adopting a series of measures. One is to have a sidekick who can keep them anchored. Another is to seek therapeutic help. Above all, one has to learn self-understanding and find methods of self-restraint.
Sadly, those who know Trump well have witnessed how productive a narcissistic leader he can be. In his divorce from Trump this past weekend, political strategist Roger Stone spoke glowingly of him in a way that made the point. That was the Donald Trump a class of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School also experienced when we visited him in New York City: He was charismatic, had a large vision and won over followers. I was grateful to him.
But the Donald Trump we’ve seen on the political stage has fallen deeply into the narcissist’s trap – he has become someone who indeed seems self-isolated, distrustful and deeply angry. He may hold followers for now, but he apparently can’t see how many others are appalled. Stone, who was his chief strategist, tried to get him back on track. Rejecting that advice and letting Stone get away only underscores how differently he sees reality from most others.
A candidate who stays up well past 3 a.m. writing vengeful tweets about Megyn Kelly is not the man the country will want answering the red phone at that hour.
Trump, I would like to believe, is better than that. He would be wise to step back, catch his breath, and seek help from others – starting with Michael Maccoby.