Narcissistic Leaders on Parade, or Barak’s Last Temptation

Gershom Gorenberg

I suppose it’s just coincidence that Slate ran a piece on narcissistic personality disorder, especially among leaders, just a few days after Moshe Katsav’s latest bit of surrealistic theater, and just as Ehud Barak had agreed to sell what’s left of the Labor Party to Bibi Netanyahu. Nonetheless, it was a useful coincidence. Here are some key passages from Slate:

A recent study titled “Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader” describes how narcissists have skills and qualities—confidence, extraversion, a desire for power—that propel them into leadership roles but that when true narcissists are in charge, other aspects of their makeup—a feeling the rules don’t apply to them, a need for constant stroking—can have “disastrous consequences.” Yes, we’re talking about you, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich…

People with NPD [narcissistic personality disorder] act as if they are special beings who are exceptionally intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, or sexy (or all of the above), to whom lesser people (pretty much everyone else) must bow…

Management consultant Michael Maccoby studied narcissistic bosses for his book, The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership… He says narcissists can be charismatic forces for change—because of their drive, vision, risk-taking, and even ruthlessness, many corporations turn to narcissists for salvation. But such people can become dangerous because their success fuels their already ample grandiosity and feeds the sense they got there by disdaining the normal rules. Maccoby says those working for or doing business with a narcissist have to be careful not be drawn into crossing legal and ethical lines.

Slate writer Emily Yoffe suggests that full-blown narcissists don’t usually seek therapy – after all, they think any problems in their lives have to be other people’s fault – and that this is just as well, because they are likely to drive their shrinks mad.

Honestly, I think Emily knows Ehud, but didn’t use him as an example because she wanted to stick to American leaders.

Barak’s energy and his confidence that he could solve all problems took him up the ladder to the prime minister’s office.  Once there, he was incapable of delegating any authority. Early in his term, a very well placed source told me about how every meeting last too long because Barak was micromanaging.

At the Camp David summit of 2000, Barak failed in his primary political goal, making peace with the Palestinians. His explanation was simple. The Palestinians didn’t want peace. To quote Emily quoting another expert, “People with NPD are convinced there is nothing wrong with them; it’s everyone around them who is impossible or crazy.” A couple of months later, Barak’s policy of using disproportional force against Palestinian riots had the same effect as when the people of Chelm tried to put out a fire by stacking logs on it. What could have been a brief episode flamed into a full-blown uprising. Barak’s explanation: The Palestinians had planned a revolt.

Israelis like these explanations; the fit expectations. Barak stayed in politics, and eventually the Labor party – acting like the abused wife who keeps coming home – chose him again as its leader. In the process, it abandoned any believable claim to have a peace program. Most of Labor’s voters moved to Kadima this election.

Now Barak wants to join Netanyahu’s government. That way, he can stay Defense Minister. He feels he is looking out for the country: He can’t imagine Israel surviving without him. He also can’t imagine that Labor voters would feel that he has sold them out by providing legitimacy for Bibi’s far-right government.

As a successful narcissist, Barak has ensured that the storm of coverage deals entirely with him. This is a distraction from Netanyahu’s desperation to bring Barak in. According to today’s news reports, Bibi is willing to appoint most of Labor’s Knesset members as ministers, deputy ministers or Knesset committee chairpeople.

Yes, Bibi wants to moderate his image internationally by bringing Labor in. But his real problem, it seems, is simpler: He hasn’t yet been able to cut deals with all the rightwing parties. He may actually realize that giving them what they want will turn him into an international pariah. He certainly knows that they all want the same ministries, and that his own party’s pols want those ministries too. If Labor and Kadimah resolutely refuse to join his coalition, Netanyahu could reach the end of the time allotted to him to form a government without succeeding.

But Barak is throwing him a lifeline. Why should Barak want to save Bibi? Silly question. Barak is trying to save Barak, which for him is the same as saving the Jewish people and perhaps humanity.

That said, Barak is a very mild case next to ex-prez Katsav. Told that he would be indicted for rape, he called a half-hour press conference that turned into a nearly three-hour tirade. The whole world was out to get him; he was not to blame.

Afterward his PR advisers quit. His lawyer, Zion Amir, did not. Like every other suspect, Katsav is innocent till proven guilty. That said, the man is accused of exploiting power to force himself on other people against their will. In that sense, the press conference was a kind of displaced psychodrama of personal assault. If I were Zion Amir, I’d be very worried about Katsav on the witness stand. Narcissists rise and fall not just on their deeds but also – perhaps mainly – on their ability to captivate other people with their feelings. If the judges feel that they are under emotional assault by a man who considers himself above the rules, that might just color their reading of the evidence.

4 thoughts on “Narcissistic Leaders on Parade, or Barak’s Last Temptation”

  1. I am afraid I have to disagree with this amateur psychological analysis of Barak. He is no different than any of the other men who have held the Prime Minister’s Office in the last couple of decades. All this is is the manifestion of the death of partisan politics in Israel and the infiltration of post-Zionist values into the ruling Establishment.
    Sure Barak betrayed his voters. He suffered a devastating loss, in a European country, the leader of a party that suffered a loss like this would either resign or be booted out by his party colleagues. But not in Israel. The political parties, with perhaps the exception of United Torah Judaism and SHAS have lost all ideological and organizational coherence and grass-roots support. I am including even the supposedly ideological MAFDAL (which renamed itself “HaBayit HaYehudi” which is a silly name). They quietly supported Sharon’s destruction of Gush Katif although nominally opposing it, leading to most of the party’s voters abandoning it.
    Barak does not believe in whatever ideology the Labor Party claims to believe it (a “workers party” if you want to believe that), he has no interest in rebuilding it in opposition, so it is natural he would sell out the party in order to advance his own career. Netanyahu is the same. Why else would he want a bungling fool like Barak, someone who has screwed up everything he ever touched since he entered politics at his side and why else would he give a party with only 13 Knesset seats so many cabinet positions? He obviously doesn’t care about his own Likud Party and he is quite prepared to sell out the National Union who recommended to the President that he be given the charge to form a new government. Netanyahu needs Barak in order to deflect the media, the State Prosecutor’s Office and the US President from him, just as Sharon needed Peres’ protection from these same sources, essentially handing governmental policy over to Peres who insisted on letting Arafat’s suicide bombers continue their murderous campaign, just in order to save Peres’ Nobel Prize Winning reputation.
    But don’t worry, there is big hope on the Left that Avigdor Lieberman will pull a Sharon and shift sharply to the Left in order to keep the State Prosecutor’s Office away from him. Almost all his 15 MK’s are nobodies who are beholden only to him (with what I hope is the exception of Uzi Landau, who I have viewed as a man of integrity). So this faithlessness with the voters that has infected the Israeli political system can work to the benefit of the “progressives” if you can get a “right-wing” politician like Sharon or Lieberman to sell out his voters. So maybe the syndrome you are criticizing Barak for may work out to your advantage. Who knows?

  2. Your comment is brilliant, Mr. Ben David. The only problem here is that it does not contradict Mr. Gorenberg’s analysis at all. It is a derivative elaboration of Mr. Gorenberg’s observation (which is not bad in itself).
    So I am afraid your opening words :”I am afraid I have to disagree with this amateur psychological analysis of Barak” serve only to denigrate the author, perhaps because of his left-wing views. It is not a proper method of debate. Is your analysis more professional than Mr. Gorenberg’s? Do you use professional methods of investigation, researching groups of people and analyzing their answers by various scales and measurements? Or your method is rather a cold method to press opponent out of debate (I think you would agree with this, because your proclaimed aim is to pave way for the settlements’ expansion whatever the costs and means) . The problem is – what then is Israel in your eyes for, if one group of its population is seen as not worthy of a proper debate, that is of any proper human attitude? Is Israel as a state not a home for leftists (too)? Is Israel a state where the leftists should serve as idiots to fulfill the greater tasks that the more advanced and clever people like you assign them (against their will)?

  3. Another way to look at the “Barak” problem is to draw parralels between Israel’s “state of national emergency” and the perpetual war in George Orwell’s 1984. In 1984, perpetual war is used to justify the continuation of totalitarianism. In Israel today, the state of national ermegency is used to resist adopting a functioning political culture. In most democratic political cultures there is usually either a left and a right camp, or a pragmatic camp and an ideological camp, or some hybrid between these two binary systems. On side wins and takes responsibility, the other side loses and holds the other to account. This enables voters to have a choice. Partly due to the continued bleating of national emergency, partly due to the Labour Party’s Mapainik belief that its proper place is in power, Israeli voters are starved of this. It is these structures that allow narcissists like Barak to play their games. If one camp is forced to take responsibility then SOMETHING ACTUALLY HAPPENS, like the Gaza pullout, for better or for worse, and Israel is shaken out of its accidental policy-making. Then the voters get to decide whether they approve or not. For the sake of Israeli democracy, Barak must be stopped.

  4. Dan-
    You are absolutely right, the ruling Establishment uses the ongoing security problems Israel faces as a way of keeping the population docile and accepting of their rule. Just like the Arab states uses the dangers of the “Zionist threat” from Israel as their excuse for maintaining the status quo (“reform or democratization will play into the hands of the wily Zionists who will use it to undermine our society”).

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