Self-Deception and Leadership

image-2953-640_panofree-rejo-2953*This post was authored by Robert Hogan & Ryne Sherman.

There is a fascinating connection between two seemingly unrelated topics: self-deception and leadership. The two themes often come together in the lives of prominent politicians, for example, in the career of Barack Obama. Let us explain.

We are both fascinated by the idea that people often do things for reasons of which they are unaware. On the one hand, it is pretty obvious that people frequently act without knowing (or caring) why they behave as they do. On the other hand, why is that? For Freud, unconscious thoughts are created by what he called “repression:” one part of the mind (the Ego) recognizes that another part of the mind (the Id) prompts us to do things that will be great fun but which will get us in trouble. The Ego saves us from ourselves by repressing the impulses of the Id—most of the time. But from time to time, the Id escapes the Ego, and we do naughty things. Even then, however, the Ego protects us by “repressing” our awareness of what we have done and why. Freud goes on to say that maturity involves replacing repression with condemnation: immature people repress their socially inappropriate impulses; mature people acknowledge that they have socially inappropriate impulses but refuse to act on them.

The existentialists (Sartre, Camus) interpreted the Freudian unconscious in an interesting way. They understood that people often do selfish things without being aware of what they are doing. But they attributed this lack of awareness to “self-deception” (in French, mauvaise foi—bad faith), a tendency to avoid recognizing the reasons for one’s actions. Self-deception is nothing more than lying to oneself about the reasons for one’s actions. For the existentialists, then, self-deception is a form of cowardice—an inability to face up to the meaning of one’s decisions—and they argued that people have a moral obligation to overcome self-deception. So, we are left with two questions: (1) Are people often unaware of the reasons for their actions; and (2) are they still responsible for those actions?  Freud says “yes” and “no,” the existentialists say “yes” and “yes,” and we agree with Sartre and Camus.

Freud mistrusted politicians, whom he saw as ruthless psychopaths driven by the desire to dominate others—Freud had Hitler and Napoleon in mind. In our view, psychopaths are charismatic, charming, and ruthless, but they also tend to be impulsive, opportunistic, and lacking career agendas. Like psychopaths, narcissists also can be charismatic, manipulative, and ruthless, but unlike psychopaths, they tend to be strategic about their careers. In addition, most psychopaths are loners, whereas narcissists often build coalitions of supporters. We believe many politicians are narcissists—people who want power and control, feel they deserve it, and work to gain it.

Charisma and narcissism are closely related—to the point that charisma is a code word for narcissism.  And this has important implications for leadership. Charismatic people tend to be chosen for leadership positions, but charismatic narcissists make ruinous leaders. A substantial literature (cf. O’Reilly, 2017) shows that narcissistic CEOs are overly confident, unwilling to listen to feedback, and hostile and combative when challenged. These tendencies are associated with excessive risk-taking and a range of unethical behavior including tax avoidance, manipulating accounting data, and excessive personal compensation. The risk-taking leads to bad investments and ill-advised law suits, staff alienation and defections, and poor overall financial performance. Humility is the opposite of narcissism, and a growing empirical literature shows that humility in combination with appropriate self-confidence predicts leadership effectiveness and organizational success (Ou, 2012; Owens et al., 2013).

Turning back to political leaders, politicians want power and control, but they are surrounded by like-minded competitors. To gain power, they often claim that they only want to serve the public and work for the greater good, with no thought of personal gain. They claim to seek power in order to help those who lack power. And they can project this message so well that it becomes hard to see what is behind it.

The essence of animal communication is deception—most animal communication is intended to deceive competitors and predators. It follows that much human communication serves the same purpose. The difference between politicians and the rest of us is not that they are deceptive; the difference is that they are good at it and they know why they are doing it. In addition, the best liars are those who believe their own stories, and this brings us back to self-deception, to Barack Obama, and to Ben Rhodes’ new book on Obama’s leadership. Rhodes was recently interviewed about his book on National Public Radio. In that interview, Rhodes came across as bright and articulate, but also as narcissistic and self-deceived. This impression was confirmed in the following (astonishing) commentary on his book in Sunday’s (June 10th) Wall Street Journal:

“Mr. Rhodes’ prose is engaging, and his Syria narrative, contrary to his slippery reputation, is astonishingly candid. We can attribute his honesty to a lack of self-awareness. He depicts himself, Mr. Obama and other members of the former president’s team as not only tragically indecisive and irresponsible but self-absorbed to the point of moral insensateness.  Yet there is no indication Mr. Rhodes understands that his account is damning.”

So, what is the point? First, Freud was right: politicians are not like the rest of us; they have a distinctive psychology that sets them apart from ordinary citizens. Second, Freud was wrong about that psychology. Even dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad are not psychopaths; rather, they are narcissistic politicians who escaped the bonds of accountability. Unlike psychopaths, successful dictators are clear minded about their goals—they are pragmatic, rational, and make data-based decisions in order to secure their legacies. Third, our own elected politicians also tend to be narcissists (Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Woodrow Wilson, etc.); charismatic, charming, and self-deceived. Sincerity is the mark of people who have been taken in by their own acts. The problems occur when political leaders commit their countries to seemingly humanitarian projects that are actually intended to secure their own personal legacies: Woodrow Wilson in WWI; Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam; George Bush in Iraq…


O’Reilly, C.A.  (2017).  The Leadership Quarterly.  http//

Rhodes, B.  (2018).  The world as it is:  A memoir of the Obama white house.  New York:  Penguin.

Ou, Y. (2012). CEO humility and its relationship with middle manager behaviors and performance: Examining the CEO-middle manager interface. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 72(7-A), 2478.

Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. D., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organizational Science, 24, 1517-1538. doi: 10.1287/orsc.1120.0795