Feb 22nd 2014

Nelson Mandela and the Wisdom of Non-Psychopathic Leaders

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

Failure of leadership is arguably the greatest curse afflicting our world. Too many countries are cursed still by leaders who oppress their people, make a mockery of the institutions of government, and cling to power regardless of the cost in lives lost and suffering inflicted. As a result, our humanity is degraded by psychopathic leaders incapable of looking beyond their own narcissistic self-importance.

As author Dov Seidman has written, the world craves genuine leadership – leaders with moral authority who have the ability to elevate us and enlist us in a shared journey. Nelson Mandela was such a leader. And he was such a leader precisely because his behaviour was the antithesis of psychopathic leadership.  

A Compelling, Realistic and Inclusive Vision  - A Democratic Vision

The greatest murders in history all had a grand compelling vision. For Hitler, the vision was of a unified Europe under German rule. Stalin’s vision was of a modern industrialized Russia in command of a wider Soviet empire. For Mao, the Vision was of a China united under Communist rule forging a new society free of economic inequality. These visions however were all the visions of psychopaths. They were all based on simplistic and defective views of humanity, and on the pathologically narcissistic self belief of the leaders concerned – Hitler’s tragically erroneous view of Jews, Stalin and Mao’s equally tragically flawed belief than human nature could be permanently recast through the use of terror.

By contrast, Mandela’s vision of a democratic racially inclusive South Africa was compelling, realistic and humane. He outlined his vision clearly at the conclusion of his speech at the trial that would see him imprisoned for twenty seven years. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” he said. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Following his release, decades later, he wrote ‘In prison my anger towards whites decreased but my hatred for the system grew.’ Once elected president, he held true to the democratic vision to which he had committed his life, and set about changing the oppressive apartheid system into one in which psychopaths could never again thrive.

A Commitment to Democracy as Both a Means and an End

The rule of psychopathic tyrants is characterized by the methods they use to achieve their narcissistic visions. The key clinical feature of psychopathy is a total absence of regard for other human beings. Psychopaths regard other people in simple instrumental terms  – as things to be used and eliminated as they see fit. The suffering of others – even suffering on a monumental scale – is of zero consequence to them. Violence and terror are therefore the primary instruments of psychopathic leaders; the needless deaths of millions of people are their principal legacy.

In stark contrast, Mandela’s vision did not require the defeat and annihilation of others. His methods were not violence and the oppression of enemies, but the democratic processes of negotiation and compromise. Mandela insisted that white South Africans were to be accommodated, not conquered. He recognized that forgiveness, not blood-letting, was the only way to build a new democratic South Africa.

Refusing to Stoke Paranoia and Scapegoat Opponents

In contrast to psychopathic leaders, who are masters at whipping up paranoia against enemies, real and imagined, Mandela showed real leadership in those moments when he faced down his own supporters desire for vengeance to emphasise the humanity of his opponents.

One such moment occurred shortly after Mandela had been released from prison, when Chris Hani, a leading black leader, was assassinated by a white immigrant. The killer was subsequently caught as the result of a tip off by a white woman. In appealing for calm, Mandela played down a racist interpretation of the murder, and demanded there be no revenge:

“Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world…. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for — the freedom of all of us.”

Building Trust – Authenticity and Humanity

The regimes of psychopathic and narcissistic leaders are characterized by monumental lies and breathtaking hypocrisy. Leaders who murdered millions are celebrated as caring fathers of the nation. The tyrants preach freedom while they keep their people in ignorance and servitude; the tyrants grow fat even as their citizens starve; the tyrants espouse fairness and equality as they amass untold wealth through coercion and corruption.

Nelson Mandela by contrast championed the principles of democracy and lived his life in accordance with those principles. The tremendous personal sacrifices he made became a source of his moral authority. As Desmond Tutu has written, ‘People could never say to him ‘You talk glibly of forgiveness: you haven’t suffered, what do you know?’ Twenty seven years gave him the authority to say, let us forgive.’

When he gained power, he acted upon the principles he believed in. He invested his authority in building the institutions of state, the rule of law, and a constitution, that would be greater than any individual. He acted to empowerment civil society and the press so they would be better able to hold leaders to account.

As a result, when Mandela made powerful gestures of reconciliation, such as inviting his jailer to be a guest of honour at his Presidential inauguration, people knew they were authentic, because they reflected the reality of the man.

Mandela was Great but Mandela was not Unique

Many of the eulogies following Mandela’s death have lamented the passing of a unique leader whose likes we seldom see and are unlikely to see again. Such assessments are both dangerous and inaccurate. Force of personality and charisma undoubtedly played important roles in Mandela’s success. But the essence of Mandela’s appeal lies in something beyond Mandela himself – in the vision of a peaceful, inclusive, democratic  world in which, in his words, never, never and never again would this beautiful world see the oppression of one by another.

As others have said, this vision was not a spontaneous miracle emanating from the magnificence of Mandela’s soul .[1] Rather it is a vision which previous generations the world over have created through an often violent struggle with psychopathic elites. It is also a vision for which countless millions around the world continue to suffer – languishing in prisons, enduring torture, and risking and losing their lives.

We cherish Mandela because he was one of us, one of the psychologically normal majority of humanity. He wanted the things we want. His values are our values. His aim was not to use us for his own ends, to lie to us, or top enslave us. His was to see us as his equal and to urge us to work together to create a society in which all of us can live as fully as we dare.

Mandela was great because he was human, and because he believed passionately in democracy. In this he was not unique. Our greatest hope for a better future lies in the fact that there are billions of us just like him.

1. Financial Times, The Madiba Magic, 7-8 December 2013

Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.



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