Jean Lipman-Blumen on the Appeal of Toxic Leaders

by Sheldon Solomon

Sheldon Solomon

Sheldon Solomon

From 2004-2007, Neil Elgee and I joined Jean-Lipman Blumen for a weekend workshop with John Gardiner’s graduate students in Leadership Studies at Seattle University.       

Jean used Ernest Becker’s ideas to explain why we often make unfortunate choices when selecting our leaders.  In uncertain times, a charismatic leader offering a bold solution to pressing problems may be particularly welcome, because such seemingly larger-than-life leaders soothe existential anxieties by giving us a sense that we are part of a noble and enduring cause.

Unfortunately, however, excepting the occasional Jesus or Gandhi, charismatic leaders are generally vastly overrated. Whereas effective leaders bring out the best in their followers by stimulating collective efforts in pursuit of noble visions to benefit humankind, charismatic leaders are too-often toxic leaders, who as Jean put it, “by virtue of their destructive behaviours and their dysfunctional personal qualities or characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on the individuals, groups, organizations, communities and even the nations that they lead.” 

Toxic leaders peddle grand illusions: unrealistic and unattainable claims to make earth as it is purported to be in heaven, not so much by diligent effort and self-improvement, but by expelling or exterminating tainted others.  “Toxic leaders,” Jean explained, “insist that they alone are the saviours who can protect us from enemies and offer us the certainty, order and immortality for which we so fervently yearn.”

Jean Lipman-Blumen

Jean Lipman-Blumen

Toxic leaders are generally, and sometimes catastrophically, unsuccessful for two reasons.  First, by insisting on their unwavering fidelity, followers become psychologically dependent on the leader and are rendered cognitively and motivationally impaired to the point where they are unable and/or unwilling to critically examine the leader’s claims in light of facts or evidence, or hold the leader responsible for failing to live up to his or her promises.  Second, toxic leaders never fulfill such promises, because they are invariably unfulfillable: “The guarantees of safety, certainty, success, endlessly soaring stock prices…and other desiderata are simply illusions…The real tragedy of the human condition is not that we all must die, but, rather, that we choose to live by grand illusions, rather than to face our fears. Hence, we fall into the clutches of toxic leaders who promise us the moon, knowing full well they cannot deliver. In the worst of all cases, toxic leaders fall under the spell of their own grand illusions and believe that they can.”

Jean’s insightful use of Becker’s ideas to delineate the psychological underpinnings of charismatic and toxic leadership strike me as particularly important in the aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential election.  Indeed, in her classic 2005 book The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians — and How We Can Survive Them, Jean observed that “Entrepreneur Donald Trump’s larger-than-life existence and near-death financial adventures continue to make intriguing copy.”  And I noted at the time that Mr. (now President-elect) Trump’s seemingly insatiable efforts to attach his name to as many buildings, airplanes, casinos, steaks, vodkas, and women as he could — was a thinly-veiled effort to deny his own mortality via narcissistic self-inflation and pursuit of various forms of symbolic immortality. 

My guess is that Becker’s and Jean’s ideas on the relationship between death anxiety and our affection for charismatic (and potentially toxic) leaders will be particularly pertinent in the near future.

Sheldon Solomon is a psychologist and professor of social psychology at Skidmore College and is a co-developer of Terror Management Theory. His new book, The Worm at the Core, is available now from Random House.