THE BLOG

How Could It Happen?

11/14/2012 05:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

How the hell can they do what they do?

This is the question we most often hear from those caught in the fallout of the deeds (or misdeeds) of fallen heroes. We believe most problems of dysfunctional or immoral leadership are the result of a flaw in a person's psychological development -- that flaw is called Pathological Narcissism. Where there is light, there is a shadow; everything that is good has a dark side, it's as simple as that. The Petraeus affair demonstrates all the classic signs of developing from that shadow.

All kinds of cultures come with the possibility of disruptive pathologies and one of the dark sides of liberal culture, apart from all its good values, is that it promotes narcissism. The military hierarchy is a part of the old authoritarian rule/role based society. Inevitably, living side by side as it does with liberal culture, pathological narcissism is seeping more and more into the military culture. Not that it wasn't present before -- stories of megalomaniacal military leaders are as old as war itself. Our point is that our present culture of entitlement is impacting on every facet of society, the military included.

So what is pathological narcissism, how does it develop and why it is so difficult to detect? The seed of this trait can be found along a child's pathway to maturity. A good way to understand this pathway is to think about it as the development of different kinds of "intelligences" or "mindsets" that a child uses as it grows and learns to make sense of their environment. And there are, of course, as many varied environments as there are children. In a normal and well balanced situation, children will discover their intelligence of "will power" by challenging parents or caregivers.

Everyone has met a high chair emperor. If good parenting is not present to help the child to balance their will, a child can grow up harboring a subconscious belief that they are entitled to have their own way all the time. Even if reality clearly proves that it can't always get what it wants, when this child becomes an adult, that sense of entitlement can survive as an immature part of the personality and that particular "intelligence" or "mindset" will start to behave parasitically. It will become a mind parasite -- what we call a Narcissus Parasite -- dominating and using all the other intelligences found along the spectrum of normal healthy development (such as rule/role intelligence, rational intelligence, sensitive or "green" intelligence etc) to promote its own self-image; a totally false, weak self-image.

And the reason that self-image is weak and false is because nobody can be that important. With pathological narcissism you're unable stand on your own two feet, you need constant confirmation of your grandeur illusion that you are in the center of the universe.

Another well-known and universally acknowledged source of pathological narcissism is our society's current obsession with celebrity culture. The music scene, movies, TV, the everybody-is-a-star movement -- all of these are ways in which we actively encourage the culture of narcissism in our children and our society. Ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up, instead of Engineer or Scientist you're more likely to hear, "famous." The US is particularly keen on making celebrities out of its Generals, many of whom have gone on to become President. They're supposed to represent something a little loftier than your average politician or business leader. Because they put their lives at risk for the sake of the ordinary citizen, they're often seen as selfless, above the corruption and moral compromise of the average politician or business leader.

Why the fixation on narcissism, you might ask. What's the big deal? Don't we need strong, dominating people in our society, people who will go out and defend our nation and protect us from harm? Well, the big deal is that pathological narcissists are, quite simply, extremely dangerous.

It's a well-known fact in the world of psychology that balanced people are motivated by love and work. That means doing a good job at work and forming good relationships with other people. Narcissistic leaders are dangerous because they are not motivated by work and love, they are quite literally caught up in a life and death struggle to protect and preserve their blown up false self-image at all costs. Without that image, that picture they have of themselves, the personality they believe they are, will die. That makes them every bit as dangerous as a cornered cobra. These narcissists will do anything to keep their self-image intact and in the military that could include genocide, putting the security of their country or the lives of their troops at risk, or even pushing that big red button.

The current "how the hell" question is how such a powerful person could be foolish enough to squander everything -- his reputation, his family, his nation's security -- for the short lived pleasure of an extra-marital affair? We don't know if Petraeus is indeed suffering from a Narcissus Parasite infection, but if so, you can be pretty sure it had nothing to do with anything so simple as temptation, seduction, or a late midlife crisis. It happened because it represented something he desperately needed. If a narcissist is unable to get his narcissistic fuel, i.e. the attention and adulation of others, to keep him going, he will end up feeling depressed, worthless, useless, lonely and lower than the low. That is why it is a life and death struggle.

This poses the question, why does society allow such behavior? We are experiencing a pandemic of narcissism, witnessing narcissistic leaders rising through the ranks in the military, political and corporate world. Everyone knows the term "narcissism," we use it freely and are impacted by the collateral damage -- whether on Wall Street, Main Street, or military tour. So how come we don't spot these dangerous people before they become so powerful? The answer is: we have not yet learned to correctly identify the symptoms of the pathological narcissist -- the Narcissus Parasite.

Pathological narcissistic leaders are difficult to understand because we are unable to see their life and death struggle. Both we the public and the people responsible for appointing our leaders do not see the bigger picture. We are unable to detect the two year old hiding behind the impressive uniform and the medals. Narcissistic people can look like successful, charming and competent people. After all, they've spent a lifetime perfecting the art of keeping up an appearance. The behavior of a person does not always tell us what their motivation is. So in fact a balanced leader and a pathological narcissistic leader can look much the same on the surface. The difference becomes apparent when that precious self-image of theirs is threatened.

And this is the crux of the matter. The most basic description of what it means to be a human being is that we need each other. We cannot be a human without other humans. That means we have to be able to yield to the will of others, as well as dominate. Narcissist Parasites are unable to yield, they can only dominate. And we have not yet learned as a culture, to detect their inability to yield, to see others as fellow human beings worthy of respect, and to focus on getting a good job done instead of being occupied with self-promotion every moment of their lives.

This is how you spot a Narcissus Parasite. Watch the people around you. Watch the ones you are supposed to elect to lead you. Ask yourself: Do they treat you, and others, as a fellow human? Or do they treat you as a servant, a tool, something to decorate and prop up their own life? Can they yield to you, or do they only dominate?

In a nutshell, the narcissist grows up believing that he/she is the center of the universe and he/she is entitled to have everything -- on Wall Street it's that million dollar bonus. If it applies in the case of the current scandal, that lover.

Mats Eriksson, co-founder of Integ Partner AB, is a Swedish psychologist and communications expert who designs and implements infrastructures for corporate communications and strategy deployment. He and his wife Karin are the authors of The Salamander Club. More information about their book and their work can be found at www.salamanderclub.com.