62 Understanding authoritarian leadership

One of the themes of this blog is finding a way to understand leadership, especially as it affects the church.  The study of leadership, whether in business or politics, is an area of interest and study for numerous disciplines, so it is unlikely that we can do more than discuss one aspect of this theme at a time.  Our particular interest is to talk about leadership when it becomes oppressive or even irrational so that the led, whether members of a congregation or citizens of a country, feel bullied and abused.

Recently I came across a fascinating study by Lord Owen (formerly David Owen), the politician/doctor who was writing about what he called Hubris syndrome among politicians.  He was casting his study back over a century of US Presidents and English Prime Ministers.   His definition of ‘Hubris syndrome’ has many similarities to the personality disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Clearly the sample of world leaders is a small one and the inability to get close to people who are no longer alive, or too important to be willingly subjected to psychiatric examination, means that the study has inbuilt limitations.   But given the fact that there is plenty of biographical information describing the life and times of such people as Theodore Roosevelt and Clement Atlee, means that the study is of great interest.

Owen describes 14 characteristics which he believes to be symptomatic of Hubris syndrome.  Most of them, as we have indicated above, are common to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  These cluster around the need to be seen as superior, important and in need of the adulation of others.  NPD could well be summed up as a combination of grandiosity and overblown self-image.   The characteristics of Hubris syndrome are a kind of enhanced NPD, especially designed for those in positions of great political influence or power. Among the additional criteria for HS are a tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’,  an unshakable belief that all their decisions will be ultimately vindicated, together with a tendency for ‘restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness’.  Although the article has some fascinating insights about George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as suffering from HS, further discussion of the article needs to move in a somewhat different direction.  This is the question of which comes first.  Are the sufferers of HS predisposed to the syndrome as the result of their upbringing, or is it the situation of actual political power that brings it alive?  It is the old question -nurture or environment?

In the literature on NPD, the overwhelming assumption among psychoanalysts is that sufferers from NPD will have had some disturbance in early childhood that render them susceptible to this disorder.  Heinz Kohut, the Austrian/American writer, in particular speaks about incomplete attachments to parental figures as lying behind the emergence of narcissistic symptoms in later life.  Recently there have been discussions as to the way that certain environments, particularly that in show business and youth culture, may create narcissistic tendencies.  In summary, the writers are describing what they call ‘situational narcissism’. This may have little to do with upbringing.  Owen, in his studies, seems to come down on the side of those who would argue that a particular environment can lead to a personality disorder.  He notes from the biographical material of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair that we can trace a creeping development of HS as each of them became more fully immersed the power of their position.  In Tony Blair’s case it is most clearly seen in the events of the Iraq war where his messianic tendencies are in full spate.  In the case of Margaret Thatcher these hubristic  tendencies are particularly obvious in the final two years of her time as Prime Minister.  In both cases, Owen seems to believe that HS only exists when there is real power given to the sufferer.  For both Blair and Thatcher the symptoms seem to subside once the time of power is over.

How is this article relevant to our interest?  It is relevant because there is a strong case, yet to be made by the experts, that the church in many of its manifestations might be a context in which individuals could develop narcissistic or hubristic tendencies.  I have already suggested that dysfunctional Church leadership, especially among charismatic leaders, may be seen as a manifestation of narcissism in those same leaders.  Owen’s article may point us to the thought that just as political power brings out hubris in certain leaders, so the Church provides an environment and culture which sometimes encourages its leaders to develop similar personality disorders.  In a previous blog post, I mentioned how the positioning of the pulpit and altar put the minister in an exalted position, which may convince him that he is indeed ‘above contradiction’.  Were the church ever to accept that NPD is a real issue among the clergy and ministers, which I firmly believe, it might have to go a stage further and recognise that the issue is not just a matter how these leaders are trained, but also a matter as to how church culture is ordered.

During this Passion season (I am writing this on Good Friday), I want to draw attention to one part of the story that we have never really internalised.  In Carlisle Cathedral last night, the Dean symbolically washed the feet of eight people.  This is an evocation of the command of Jesus to ‘wash one another’s feet’.  Such an act of service was meant to undermine the pomposity, the power-seeking and the endemic hierarchy that is so common in human affairs.  Washing feet is a cure against the self-importance and omnipotence that litter the affairs of the church.  If the church was a place of service and feet washing in reality, it could no longer provide the context for the abuses of power that so much besmirch and undermine what the church tries to do and be.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “62 Understanding authoritarian leadership

  1. The foot washing is a symbol. I once watched it done so intensely, it was embarassing. That, I suggest, is how it should be. And yes, in my experience, clergy do show creeping development of hubris. The higher up the tree they go, and the longer they get away with it. They eventually learn that there are no limits to what they can do, no-one will say anything, no-one will do anything. Small wonder it turns people’s heads. What you need is a good reporting system. And real foot washing, not just pouring water over.

  2. The more I contemplate this issue about authority in leadership, the more I become aware about how militarized our society really is. We seem to clone off people who appear to be highly educated but, in point of fact have long since reached a level of incompetence. I have experienced this on many fronts. One was the ‘situational narcissism’ that I allowed to seep into my soul post my evangelical programming.
    This took the form of absolute certainty about my ‘Special relationship’ with God? All my thoughts and actions were conditioned by this. (I blame no one but myself, somehow I resisted the inner conviction that told me ‘You are wrong!’).The next front was seeing the way the social services residential/nursing homes inspectorate constantly failed to see abuse and neglect. Those promoted to a level of incompetence in this area ticked boxes (A strange mentality in itself) and then relied on ‘Senior staff’ to inform them about ‘routines’. We are constantly looking to people who ‘Know what they are talking about’. The followers of Thatcher, Blair, and others have to exchange their brain for a corn flake and then let the thinking be done for them! Stephen is way ahead on this issue. The Church could if it chose be in the vanguard of change on this issue however, I fear it will be dragged kicking and screaming into the real world, at the end of the crisis that will most certainly come. Peace, Chris Pitts

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