Friday, 23 December 2011

Psychological Profiles of Leaders

Yesterday I was riveted listening to The Current on CBC Radio, which talked about the psychological profiles of world leaders, specifically people like recently deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Jerrold Post who was with the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA for 21 years where he founded and directed the Centre for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour from 1974 to 1986. He is now Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and the Director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University.

He talked about the importance of background information of leaders, that their upbringing gave a clear indication of what kind of leader they would be and how critical that information can be when wanting to know how to negotiate with them, and anticipate how they will lead in times of crisis.

One dramatic example he gave was of Saddam Hussein, who Post felt was the most traumatized of leaders. His life was already tragic in the womb as his father died when his mother was pregnant with him for four months; Hussein's brother died after a botched surgery when he was eight months into the pregnancy and then because of these two deaths, his mother had severe depression and tried to abort him and commit suicide.

If that wasn't enough, after Hussein was born, his mother wanted to have nothing to do with him and had him raised by her brother for the first few years of his life until she remarried. And then it turned out his step-father was a violent and abusive man; one can clearly make a link with how Hussein became so brutal towards his people. When his sons were around 10 years old, Hussein took them to watch torture sessions. This is what Post calls "the family that slays together, stays together".

In the case of Kim Jong-il, he had an immense challenge of having to lead North Korea with his father's shadow constantly over him. Kim Il-sung was a guerrilla leader and the younger Kim had no revolutionary experience to speak of. His father was keen to ensure his succession and early on appointed him to learn everything he needed to know, starting with the propaganda department.

However, Kim Jong-un has not had any kind of education in leadership until very recently which makes this period particularly worrying as no one knows what he is like and what his outlook is.

One wonders what the profiles of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are, but one can look back on history and see the Communist Party has learned its lesson from having too strong of a leader thanks to Mao Zedong who built a personality cult particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

Post says when one person dominates a country it is not a healthy situation and calls this "malignant narcissism". The leader does not make the best decisions as his aides become sycophants who are afraid for their lives and families if they do not give suggestions that benefit the leader. Saddam comes to mind.

As a result the Communist Party in China has tried to create what it calls a more democratic system where it rules by consensus rather than by one leader.

While this dilutes power in a good way, it also creates political factions and in China's case, it's between the liberals and hardliners. Both want to preserve the power of the Party but differ in how they propose to do this. The liberals think real political and economic reforms are the solution, while hardliners are extremely conservative and want to make things even more opaque. This creates some kind of balance of power within the Party which in a way is beneficial, but it really is a battle of who has the stronger guangxi.

Also, Chinese leaders do not to reveal too much about themselves personally, but it's these intimate details that make leaders more personable, and Barack Obama is an excellent example.

It's not Party policy to do so; they prefer to rule without much of a face.

But with Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai giving Chinese politics more flamboyance, perhaps the Chinese government will finally give more definition to its facial features.

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