As we witness in this blog, history supports the notion that the Machiavellian personality is found disproportionately in the swirling circumstances of events, either to lead with wit and sword or collapse with failure and scorn. Harsh episodes, early poverty, loss of love, resentment, and unannounced bad luck fall to the unfortunate, but the consequences may ironically resonate across civilizations.
Rahm Emanuel, then Chief of Staff at the White House and now Mayor of Chicago, realized the value of a crisis to galvanize the people to a purpose and to grease the skids that can drive a person to greatness. Rahm repeated this mantra in November of 2008 at a Wall Street Journal Forum: “You never want a serious crisis to go waste.”
Indeed, crises have historically been the catalysts of greatness.
Demosthenes (330 BCC) Athens threatened by expanding Macedon and
encroaching Philip. He told the people that he
was the single person who could bring victory to
Hannibal (218 BCC) Carthaginian general delivered a monumental
Speech to his army after crossing the Alps with
50,000 soldiers and 37 elephants and entered
Italy to attack the Romans.
Jonathan Edwards (1741) The Great Awakening of religious fervor swept
the American colonies. Edwards took up the
challenge to unify its purpose and weed out the
bad seeds that resisted his efforts.
Patrick Henry (1775) Leader of the American Revolution who rallied the
people with keen insight and absolute courage, saying
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Susan B. Anthony (1873) Against the background of the civil rights
movement following the Civil War, she fought for women’
suffrage and freedom from male abuse.
Winston Churchill (1940) Warned England of the Nazi danger, fought
brilliantly during WWII. Came to power during
a deep economic depression.
Adolf Hitler (1938) Sudden rise to power during an economic
depression in Germany, prior to invasion of
Poland and the start of WWII.
Franklin Delono Roosevelt (1933) United States economic depression was in full
Swing, facilitating his rise to power.
Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) Brought the United States through WWI, WWII
and Korea. He was an incomparable general.
George S. Patton (1880-1945) In large measure he was the Third Army general
who destroyed the Nazi influence in Europe. His
motto: “Kill the Bastards.”
Not only did these individuals have the courage and temptation to assume leadership, they were all kissed by the gods with oratorical splendor. They rode the charismatic train to fame and promised an escape from darkness and the hope to emerge into light. “Our moment has come,” they all announced in one way or another. They lived on threads of hope and thought in terms of revolution and victory in battle. They moved in circles of power, fame, and money.
It is a Faustian bargain between the commanding leader and their followers. The leader gives the people what they want to hear and believe, and the followers give up their individual freedom in order to serve the commander and the common path. The bond between “master” and “apostle” is strong, the leader knowing that the medium is the message – its content, its implementation, and its imperfections, or untruths, are unimportant.
For the common experience, the followers propel the leader to power, help the medium accomplish his or her goals, and protect the leader from criticism and bodily harm. The services that followers receive are of special status, retribution, and perhaps redistribution of wealth.
Great commanders exposed to the trembling and fear of their audiences are always at risk, and they may be cut down, either for what they represent, their ideology, or what they accomplish, or for the failures to produce, or for the crimes that they may commit. Economic and cultural demons stir the broth of the cauldron, and the questionable leaders float to the top.
Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin
October 10, 2014