Meditating About Leaders: Is Personality the Issue?

Oct 12 , 2019
By Dawit Wondimagegn

A grandiose sense of national entitlement could be a good collective motivator for action, but unless it is kept to a healthy dose, it has a dangerous tendency to override all other entities, argues Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital. These are his personal views.

A face is deceptive. It is very hard to tell what a person will or will not do just from looking at them. The whole field of the psychology of personality is premised on this difficulty, to tell what a person is, and what it is they are going to do or not to do.

In our current world where the audacity of individuals claiming to speak for everybody else is prevailing, it is very easy to miss the individual for the collective. I think, among other things, this is at the heart of our increasingly routine confusion that we are living in. There seems to be a never-ending drama going on where few individuals are racing to win the game of "Who has the next big surprise?"

In this non-stop assault on human dignity, the people are once again playing their customary role, that is at best as innocent bystanders and at worst as weapons of mutual destruction.  One cannot help but ask who is benefiting from all the real, imagined and potential destruction? Who is to lose? Who is to gain?

Questions that seem complex, but in all honesty, they are quite simple to answer. Real life is such that human beings are always socialised to have leaders and followers. Both these categories will continue to live, to gain and benefit from any form of destruction. For a time there may be the mirage of winners and losers, but in the end the only losers are going to be none other than individuals: people with personal stories of failure and triumph, people who have worries and desires of their own, people whose fate is not in their own hands but is decided for them without their knowledge or consent, people whose life is used to justify their own demise by other individuals who feel entitled to speak on behalf of the invisible many.

The individual is the quagmire of life. The individual is what needs to be unpacked for us to begin to understand what is going on around us and make sense of our environment. Because at the two ends of the spectrum are individuals, leaders and those who died for their cause, effectively for their leaders' cause!

This is why we have to zoom our focus on individual actors of our existential drama heading for a classic tragedy. Individuals, each one of us, are in it. An individual is a person. What makes a person is a story. All individuals are persons with stories. In this river of multiple stories, it is never easy to infer why a person is the way they are. All we can look out for is actions, words, intents and purposes; then we may be able to see individuals for who they may be and determine the level of threat they pose to the safety of each one of us and the people we love.

Even though predicting how dangerous people are is quite a futile exercise in personality assessment, few traits could be taken as general indicators as to where someone could be placed in the broad dimension of safe-to-dangerous.

Indifference to the suffering of others, devaluation of others, intolerance of criticism and a grandiose sense of national entitlement are traits one should watch for.

In Ethiopia, suffering has become our company. We have gone through endless suffering throughout the ages. Now it seems we have gotten to the place where we do not care about it anymore. Indifference has become the order of the day. A reductionist’s view of this would be that we went into such a deep state of learned helplessness that we cannot see any way out of our historical and current predicaments. This might explain the collective indifference to suffering evident in our streets daily.

A challenge arises when we flip the coin toward the individual. When a person is utterly indifferent to the potential suffering of others as a result of his or her own actions, then we have a personality issue. Even worse, when a person acts on the belief that the potential suffering and death of many is a means to power and the pain of many is justified for his or her cause, then you have a personality problem. When one has a complete disregard for other people’s lives, then, of course, we have a personality issue.

In our country, devaluing the other is a national currency. In life, there are only a few certain things. The "other" is one of the certainties of life. As long as there is the "self," the "other" is a given. In our history, "the other" is at the centre of all our convergent and divergent struggles. Devaluing the other as a psychological motive was used for protecting our sovereignty, as in Adwa. If our forefathers did not have the almost delusional belief that "the other" (Italians) were not up to their standards of character, our struggle now would have been quite a different one. Devaluing the other as a psychological motive was also used for consolidation of power among each other.

It is quite an enigma to me why devaluing the other still remains a viable tool for power consolidation in present day Ethiopia. We will all be served much better with a bit of idealisation of the other, that we all want to look up to each other and see that there is also good in all of us if we prefer to see it. When I say ‘WE’ I am talking about the ideal we, all our ancestors and the generations that will come after us that are given the privilege to occupy the land.

Now, this is all good until we insert the individual. When we flip it once again, we are faced with individuals who are banking on devaluing the other. Then we have a personality issue. When you have individuals who refuse to break with bad tradition as long as it is serving their intent, then we have a personality issue. When you have individuals who claim to correct a wrong by doubling down on the wrong, then we are dealing with a personality problem.

Intolerance of criticism is the order of the day. Criticism is the catalyst in our socialisation processes as human beings. There is no social or individual development without criticism. We are told to do this or that from an early age. As much as we were loved and kissed for our looks and young age, we were critiqued constantly to be who we are as individuals and groups. If we escape parents, the neighbours will get us. If we outrun them, teachers will catch us. If we move fast, the church will haunt us. If we beat them all, the powers that be will always hover around in case we step outside of what is prescribed.

We carry all these critics in our consciences. This being the case, one would think a normal personality development would mean a healthy tolerance of criticism. After all, the critics are already in our mind. It is almost impossible for anyone of us to be criticised for something, which we have never been criticised for before. The content may deceive but the process is all the same. When we see individuals who can dish a criticism but cannot take it themselves, then, of course, you have a personality issue. When you come across individuals who claim all the truth to be on their side and no truth is to be found from others, then we have a personality defect.

A grandiose sense of national entitlement could be a good collective motivator for action. National entitlement has its own psychological underpinnings and there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of nationalism. The danger is in its tendency to overrun and override all other entities. This does not happen in the collective. The key here is the individual. Nationalism is bound to release all pent-up emotions and resentments of individuals in the collective for a real or perceived experience of injustice and humiliation. This creates a group of followers with a genuine wish to rectify and correct the wrong that was done to them. In this instance, the power of the collective hands a sense of omnipotence for the few who will emerge as leaders.

This sense of omnipotence is quite seductive for so many, because it reminds us of a time in our lives when we all were omnipotent: infancy. The infant is omnipotent, because it does not recognise power. For the infant, all its orders are executed with no questions, automatically. It does not know that it is because it has a mother!

This is what we, adults, need to remember every time we are swept away with a sense of omnipotence. Just because people seem to follow our orders, we must never forget that the people who are following orders are not mothers with no interest but who care for their children. People obey power, not individuals. If an individual confuses power for omnipotence, then we have a personality problem.

As we navigate through hard times and in unchartered waters, we have to try and judge whether we are safe or in danger. This all depends on the personalities that guide us. Personality is complex. It is hard to put people in any one category, unless for clinical purposes, which is what my colleagues and I do. Once out of the shrink’s couch, we all are left to our own devices to judge if the person I am following is safe for me individually.

Some of the traits I elaborated above may help marginally. Even if it is crude, I will put a person on the dimension of safe-to-dangerous. I have to judge if they are indifferent to my real and potential suffering, whether they value my life, if they would consider my advice or another’s opinion; and most importantly, if they are using me as an end or as a means to an end. This will shed light on the kind of person who is deciding my fate.

I do not know enough politics to understand the intricacies, but this is what has become clear to me for a while now. Historical and economic accountability is just the tip of the iceberg. The most important question is other than myself, who is responsible for my life? And why? Why would one person care for another? And why would one person claim to care for another?

The answer is in the questions!

PUBLISHED ON Oct 12,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1015]

Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital.

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