Jun 13, 2024


Art Credit: Jano Tantongco, jano.tantongco@gmail.com


How can recognizing and mitigating the psychological effects of toxic leadership protect people from regressing and aligning with dangerous leaders before it’s too late?

Otto Kernberg’s contributions to psychoanalysis and the study of personality disorders have provided profound insights into the dynamics of malignant narcissism and large group regression; he was concerned about the dangerous ripple: effects of toxic leaders. Kernberg’s work on borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, particularly his introduction of borderline personality organization and the concept of malignant narcissism, has been instrumental in understanding complex personality structures. His development of Transference Focused Psychotherapy (TFP) has further enriched the field by integrating object relations theory with psychoanalytic techniques to treat these challenging disorders.

Malignant narcissism is a severe psychological syndrome that merges traits of narcissistic personality disorder with antisocial behavior, paranoia, and aggressive tendencies. It is marked by extreme self-absorption, manipulative behaviors, and a lack of empathy. Such individuals possess an exaggerated sense of self-importance and are often vindictive. Large group regression refers to the phenomenon where groups regress to a more primitive psychological state under stress or perceived threat, leading to dependency on authoritarian leaders and simplified, childlike thinking. This regression can have devastating effects on both organizations and societies when combined with malignant narcissistic leadership.

Malignant Narcissism

Malignant narcissism is defined by its blend of narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial behaviors, paranoia, and aggression. The central features include an exaggerated sense of self-importance, exploitative relationships, lack of empathy, and a need for admiration. Antisocial behaviors such as deceitfulness, impulsivity, and disregard for social norms further complicate this disorder. Paranoia in malignant narcissists manifests as irrational distrust of others, leading to significant relationship conflicts and hostility. Aggression is not just reactive but also proactive, often directed at dominating others to reinforce a sense of power.

Real-life examples of malignant narcissism in leadership illustrate its destructive potential. In organizations, such leaders create toxic workplaces characterized by secrecy, mistrust, and high turnover. They manipulate subordinates for personal gain and promote a culture of compliance over competence. In societies, malignant narcissistic leaders establish authoritarian regimes, exacerbate social divisions, and cause economic instability through poor policymaking. Historical figures like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein are often cited as examples of leaders exhibiting traits of malignant narcissism, demonstrating the severe consequences of such leadership.

Large Group Regression

Large group regression occurs when groups revert to primitive behaviors under stress or threat. This regression involves simplification of thought, heightened emotionality, increased dependency on leaders, and diminished individuality. Triggers for this phenomenon include uncertainty, fear, and crises, which disrupt normal psychological structures and support systems. Leaders with malignant narcissistic traits can manipulate these conditions for personal or political gain, leading to significant social and political upheavals.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a contemporary example of large group regression. The stress and uncertainty caused by the pandemic led to heightened emotional distress and dependency on leadership. Business leaders had to navigate unprecedented challenges, making critical decisions amidst evolving information and emotional responses from their teams. Similarly, the events of January 6, 2021, in the United States, where Donald Trump’s rhetoric incited a riot at the Capitol, exemplify how propaganda can trigger large group regression, leading to violent collective actions.

Psychoanalytic Group Psychology

Sigmund Freud, Wilfred Bion, and Pierre Turquet made significant contributions to group psychology. Freud’s work emphasized the role of libidinal ties in group cohesion and the idealization of leaders. Bion studied unconscious group dynamics, introducing concepts like projective identification and the ‘container-contained’ relationship, where the group or leader contains and makes sense of individual emotions. Turquet focused on large group identity, noting the struggles with identity and authority in large groups, and the defensive reactions triggered by perceived threats.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial for preventing societal and organizational crises. Recognizing traits of malignant narcissism and triggers for large group regression helps in identifying and mitigating potential threats. This knowledge can inform better screening processes, leadership training, and policy formulation to foster healthier group dynamics and prevent crises.

How Groups Choose Leaders

Groups under stress or threat regress into two primary types: dependency groups and fight-or-flight groups. Each type seeks a different kind of leader to address their psychological needs and perceived challenges.

Dependency Groups

Dependency groups are characterized by a general sense of insecurity, uncertainty, and immaturity. These groups look for leaders who can provide direction, security, and meet their needs in a parental role. Leaders who are self-assured, knowledgeable, and somewhat parental are idealized and seen as virtuous and moral. These leaders offer reassurance and create a tranquilizing effect on the group. An example of this can be seen in the post-9/11 era, where American society looked to leaders who promised safety and security amidst the heightened threat of terrorism. The immediate emotional and protective response of the government, symbolized by increased security measures, resonated with the dependency group’s need for reassurance.

Fight-or-Flight Groups

Fight-or-flight groups are characterized by tension, conflict, and readiness for combat. These groups focus on identifying and combating external threats, often led by a strong, self-righteous, and controlling leader. Such leaders promise to protect the group from perceived enemies, fostering a strong us-versus-them mentality. An example is Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, where he capitalized on the nation’s post-World War I turmoil. Hitler’s aggressive rhetoric and promise to restore Germany’s greatness by fighting its enemies resonated with a population ready to confront perceived threats, both internal and external.

Case Example: The Rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership in Turkey is a contemporary example of how a fight-or-flight group selects its leader. Over the years, Erdoğan has increasingly consolidated power, presenting himself as a protector of Turkish values against external and internal threats. His rhetoric often emphasizes a strong nationalist identity, portraying the government as a bulwark against various enemies, including alleged coup plotters and perceived foreign threats. This narrative appeals to a population that feels threatened and seeks a strong leader to defend their interests.

Erdoğan’s administration has been marked by significant purges and crackdowns on dissent, often justifying these actions as necessary for national security and stability. This approach has fostered an environment where critical voices are suppressed, and loyalty to the leadership is paramount. The fight-or-flight group dynamics are evident in the polarized society that rallies around Erdoğan, viewing him as the indispensable leader in a time of perceived crisis.

Societal Implications and Preventative Measures

Preventing societal and organizational crises involves a multifaceted approach. Educational interventions, policy measures, and leadership responsibilities are key to addressing the effects of malignant narcissism and large group regression. Promoting media literacy, regulating misinformation, and encouraging dialogue are essential steps in mitigating these dynamics. Leadership training programs should emphasize ethical behavior and empathy to counteract the effects of malignant narcissism.

Examples of prevention include corporate governance reforms, psychological assessments in leadership selection, and training programs emphasizing ethical leadership. Governmental policies can combat propaganda and promote media literacy. Historical examples, such as Germany’s post-World War II reforms, illustrate successful strategies for preventing the rise of malignant narcissistic leaders and fostering democratic stability.

Examples of Prevention

Corporate Governance Reforms: In the wake of corporate scandals, such as Enron and WorldCom, many corporations have implemented stricter governance protocols to curb the influence of potentially malignant narcissistic leaders. These include enhanced transparency, the establishment of ethics committees, and stronger whistleblower protections. This is aimed at preventing the unchecked power that can enable a malignant narcissist to manipulate organizational outcomes for personal gain.

Leadership Assessments: Some companies now include psychological assessments in their leadership selection and development processes. These assessments are designed to identify traits associated with malignant narcissism, such as lack of empathy, ethical flexibility, and exploitative tendencies, thus preventing such individuals from ascending to positions of power.

Training and Development Programs: Organizations have instituted leadership development and ethics training programs that emphasize empathy, ethical leadership, and the importance of collective over personal gain. These programs are intended to counteract the effects of malignant narcissism by promoting a culture of ethical behavior and respect for others within the organization.

Policy Interventions: On a governmental level, policy interventions aimed at reducing the impact of large group regression include the promotion of media literacy to combat propaganda and the regulation of information to prevent the spread of misinformation. For example, efforts to combat fake news on social media platforms are partly aimed at preventing the societal polarizations that can be provoked or exacerbated by malignant narcissistic leaders.

Historical Case Example – German Governmental Reforms: After World War II, Germany underwent significant changes to its government, education, and culture to prevent the rise of another malignant narcissist like Adolf Hitler and to avoid another crisis like the Nazi regime. These reforms focused on dismantling the remnants of Nazi influence and laying the foundation for a democratic and stable society. The introduction of the Marshall Plan and other economic aids helped stabilize the German economy, which in turn supported the political stability and helped integrate Germany into the European and global economy as a democratic state.

Despite the daunting challenges posed by malignant narcissism and large group regression, there is hope. As awareness and understanding of these psychological dynamics grow, so do our tools for addressing them. Education, ethical leadership, and community engagement are powerful forces that can counteract the influence of toxic leaders. By fostering environments that prioritize empathy, transparency, and mutual respect, we can build resilient communities and organizations capable of withstanding and overcoming the influence of malignant narcissism. Together, through informed action and collective effort, we can create a future where integrity and compassion guide our leaders, ensuring a healthier, more harmonious society for all.


I was in my friend’s apartment, but it wasn’t their place. My friends are a married couple, a man and a woman. I think I was house sitting while they were away. Before they left, I went over. In their kitchen was this big crab, not life-size, running around everywhere, zooming on the ceiling, then on the floor near the kitchen island. For some reason, I was tasked with taking care of it. I essentially had to kill the crab. I had some sort of little knife, and we danced back and forth before I stabbed it right in its head. Before that, the crab sank three legs into my left calf, one on the side, one in the back, and one just above my knee. I was shocked that it didn’t hurt, but they were big. My friend’s wife got to work immediately and just pulled them out. I can remember the feeling of her pulling them out. There was a lot of blood. It was pretty uncomfortable. After pulling them out, nothing really happened, and I walked towards the kitchen sink and said, I don’t feel great. She asked me if I had ringing in my ears right now. I said no and then realized there was blood coming out of my ears and lightly out of my eyes. I think she was about to call an ambulance, but I realized there was probably some poison in the crab legs. Then I woke up


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  1. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Deb, Lisa and Joseph,
    A great episode. Thank you. I found the dream very interesting. I’m a massage therapist and I immediately wondered if the places where the crab punctures her left leg could correspond to acupuncture points that may need attention on a mind/body or spirit level. Lonny Jarrett has written some great books on acupuncture points and how they relate to all three of these levels. Deb, I have seen (and have personal experience with ) amazing healing from acupuncture. In the early 70’s when acupuncture was not well known, my aunt (a politician) actually helped to get acupuncture as a licensed field in the state of New York. She had had her own healing with it. I have also seen and experienced great healing with the massage modality Shiatsu which uses pressure on the same acupoints as acupuncture. So the thought immediately occurred to me that acupoints might have some meaning here. Thank you again for your work.
    P.S. Stay off social media. Nothing good can come of it.

  2. Gregory Duncan

    Good interactions as always. Joseph’s comments around the 40 minute mark about an impaired sense of self by the narcissist was eye opening, since I usually attributed that to a more borderline personality. The similarities & differences between the two are I suppose beneficial to explore.

    Perhaps the narcissist fills the void by establishing mirrors around themselves that contribute to their feelings of idealization and grandiosity, while borderlines fill the void through a more latching on approach that reinforces the good object/bad object structure in their inner psyche.

    I’m interested in learning more about the psychology behind “flying monkeys” who do the bidding of narcissists. They are undoubtedly motivated by fear and anxiety, and this was mentioned in the podcast, but what is the relationship between this and a prevalence of borderline traits in the general population?

  3. Reinold

    What do you guys hear Joe Biden say when you really listen to him? You seriously hear a competent leader who could possibly have won an election from his basement only a few years ago (when it was obvious, too, that he was not competent)? I’m puzzled how Jungian thought leaders can outsource all the madness and evil to other cultures (as you have previously done with Russia, Iran and now Turkey, Hungary) and completely ignore what’s happening in Western civilization. Humanity has never been closer to nuclear war (especially with a senile commander in chief), and that is not something thought leaders can responsibly ignore. I’m sorry to conclude, but your world view is seriously and dangerously outdated.


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