Americans tend to have a fascination with charismatic leaders. They can awe and wow us with their apparent confidence and boldness. We may equate such boldness and swagger with some type of super- human power that we lack. Consequently, our inner child may experience a tug or pull to give our power to the charismatic leader. We may reason that with such confidence surely he or she knows more than I do. Furthermore, we may reason, that if they know more than I do, perhaps they can protect me from the evils of the world.
Unfortunately, some charismatic leaders may welcome our immature fantasies. Such charismatic leaders believe that they are special, more capable, and more intelligent than others are. They may also believe that this specialness entitles them to say and do whatever they want to say and do, and others will fall in step regardless of the unlawfulness, immorality and insanity of their propositions. Minimally, this type of distortion represents ego inflation (narcissism, a clinical personality disorder, is a more severe expression of this phenomenon), the dark side of charismatic leadership.
Charismatic leaders under the spell of ego inflation have a highly distorted sense of self. They cannot see any of their flaws or shortcomings. Furthermore, fear fuels the inflated ego as everyone and everything is a potential threat to its grandiosity. The inflated ego cares only about protecting itself and getting what it wants at all costs. It is blind to the carnage in leaves behind in its wake.
We might expect an inner warning signal to go off when we encounter the dark side of the charismatic leader. However, if we are not healthy, mature, and confident in our being, our inner child is vulnerable to the seduction of the charismatic leader. In his seminal book, Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) proposed that the thought of real freedom, freedom to choose, create, and live one’s life, frightened people more than inspired them. It appears some of us may long for a perpetual childhood where others tell us what to do and when. When we do, we refuse to accept responsibility for our lives or the state of our world. Instead, we would much rather blame some “evil” other for our misery. Unfortunately, there are people who will gladly take our power and claim that he or she alone can save us or fix it all.
Confidence and self-esteem are essential elements of leadership. They allow us to embrace our strengths and take stands for what we care most about in our lives. This confidence and self-esteem are necessary for effective leaders as well as healthy adult maturation. However, BEWARE of the charismatic leader with a highly inflated ego, who has lost touch with reality and is willing to do everything and anything to protect its fragile identity. We know from our life experiences and history that this type of leader is dangerously destructive to his or herself, the people with who they live and work, and potentially to America and our world.