After a major cataclysm or catastrophe, human nature seems to be to look to a strong leader to help guide us. Many people are scared and feel weak. They want someone to reassure or guide them. If strength is the antidote to weakness and a person can’t find that strength internally, then they’ll look outside for it. Very often, people will give up their personal values and sense of self in order to follow a leader who seems strong and comforting.
Consider the kind of heroic media coverage Rudy Giuliani got after 9/11. Consider the pass Bush got from a wide swath of the American public for nearly six years. Consider the way so many New Orleaneans tried to justify outrageous police behavior in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Consider the rise of Hitler after the economic collapse of the Weimer Republic.
The problem with looking to a strong leader is that many characteristics that appear to be “strengths” could in fact be symptoms of antisocial personality disorder. The man who can convince thousands to follow him into battle against overwhelming odds might be a great leader, or he might simply lack a conscience.
Sociopaths are like those over-bred Red Delicious apples that look bright and shiny on the outside, but when you bite into them they turn out to have a thick, bitter skin and mealy, flavorless flesh. I’m not saying that all strong leaders are sociopaths. I am saying that in a democracy it’s important for us to know how to tell good leadership skills from sociopathy. If we can’t tell the difference, we can make very bad choices.
I envision two possible scenarios for the global climate change cataclysm. First scenario: the damage is localized or slow-moving, and our political and social systems more or less hold up. But as we come to feel the effects personally, many of us will become shocked, dazed and fearful. Second scenario: the cataclysm is abrupt, sudden and irrevocable. Political, social and economic systems collapse overnight. We’re not just dazed, but terrified and on the run.
Either way, many of us will begin to look to strong leaders to make us feel better. Problem is, how do we tell the good, strong leaders from the sociopaths (or “Machiavellians” or “corporate psychopaths”) to make sure we don’t follow or empower them?
One solution: when looking for leadership, look for a good manager. That’s the person who gets things done without making a lot of fuss, blowing a lot of smoke or generating a lot of fanfare. Unfortunately, these people often fade into the background. Worse, you and many people around you may be distracted by the bright, shiny object of flashy leadership. If you can’t find the the managers, what else can you do?
I’ve devised this ten-question test you can use to identify sociopaths. It isn’t perfect, just a quick-and-easy tool you can use to weed out the really bad apples.
Go ahead, give this a try right now to get comfortable with it. Test the seemingly strong people in your life – your boss, your neighbor, your favorite presidential candidate. Nobody knows how many sociopaths are out there, but research suggests you probably know a few already. Hone your skill so by the time the cataclysm hits, you’ll be able to spot a sociopath at fifty yards.
Here’s the most important point: you can’t fix a sociopath. Because they don’t feel remorse they don’t learn lessons, so don’t even try to teach them any. The best thing you can do is, when you identify them for who they are, turn the other way. Don’t follow them. Don’t give them your allegiance. They don’t deserve it, and we’ll need something better if we’re going to survive the climate change cataclysm.