CIA clinical psychologist Ursula Wilder on profiling world leaders — "Intelligence Matters"
In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with Ursula Wilder, a clinical psychologist at the Central Intelligence Agency, about why intelligence agencies conduct psychological profiles of world leaders, and how past policymakers have used what they have learned to make strategic decisions. Wilder, who also worked in CIA's counterterrorism center and Medical and Psychological Assessments unit, explains the "dark tetrad" of personality — narcissism, paranoia, Machiavellianism and sadism — and how those traits can influence how leaders make decisions and engage in negotiations. She and Morell also discuss how policymakers respond to psychological profiles compiled by government agencies.
- How to profile a world leader: "The very first thing I do is find a regional specialist to be my partner. Whereas I know something of the psyche and the development of the psyche and personality features, et cetera, I can't know every cultural context. And the magic really happens, when you do a psych assessment, between the psychologist who brings all of the knowledge of the how psyche is developed, maintained, how it's framed, how it's defined, and you add that to regional knowledge, cultural backdrop, the idea of the structures that that leader is reacting to and in that you can really come up with a fairly accurate state of play of this person's personality in that particular context."
- Influence of life stages on leadership psychology: "So every decade of adult life has specific stages of development that we go through as adults. It doesn't just end in childhood. So the priorities and rhythms of a 20-, 30-year-old are very different than a 50- and 60-year-old, they're just very different orientations to reality. And when you're thinking through a leader, you have to bear in mind what their age would imply about their physical and mental state and emotional state. And then you have to put that in context."
- Importance of explaining a hold on political power: "One of the things you have to do, no matter how maladaptive or pathological they seem, though, is you have to be able to account for how they got where they got and how they held power. So no matter how unattractive, unappealing, and broken a person seems, if they're holding on to political power, then something in their personality is enabling them to do that. And we owe it to our customers to define that."
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – URSULA WILDER
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Ursula, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show.
URSULA WILDER: It's great to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I should say that that usually we we tape these things virtually, but we're lucky today to actually have you in the studio so face to face. And that's a really nice thing that we used to do pre-COVID and now we don't do enough. So it's great to have you here in person.
URSULA WILDER: It's a great analog experience to actually speak with a person on the screen for a change.
MICHAEL MORELL: Exactly. So I just want to start by saying that we're going to talk about the psychology of leaders. And I think our listeners might be thinking they're going to hear about current world leaders, recent world leaders, and you're just not in a position to do that. And I just want you to explain why.
URSULA WILDER: I'd be happy to. So let's begin with official policy. We, as U.S. government employees, cannot opine about leaders in our country, recent leaders as well as currently serving leaders. That's an absolute boundary that we are very careful to attend to, and in this case I'll be able to speak more fully about leaders during World War II, American leaders during World World War II and before that, and make occasional comments about U.S. persons and recent leaders, but have to be very careful about that.
In terms of leaders in general, including overseas, the ethics of the profession, of my profession, of clinical psychology, are very clear that we cannot speak publicly about living people of any sort – celebrities, politicians. It's just considered unethical to publicly opine about them.
MICHAEL MORELL: So it would be like seeing somebody in private and then going out and talking about them.
URSULA WILDER: You just can't use your skills that way, for two reasons. The first is, you really do need to have an interaction face-to-face with a person to fully understand them and to understand them accurately. And that's because the work isn't just what they say in response to questions, but how they say it and what they don't say. And so that interaction is critical to the diagnostic or interviewing process as a clinical psychologist.
And the other, of course, is privacy, basic privacy and consent. So publicly, this is not something that psychiatrists, psychologists and other clinicians do. So that's another reason. And so I'll be able to speak of dead leaders. They have to be dead, dead. You can't be politically dead.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, but I might be able to throw something in there.
URSULA WILDER: I was going to say –
MICHAEL MORELL: I don't face the same restrictions.
URSULA WILDER: You do not. And if something I say strikes you as, from your experience, from the people you've met and just your knowledge of history, jump right in. I think that would really help us.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Ursula, let's start with how you got to be where you are. So, what attracted you to clinical psychology? What attracted you to the Central Intelligence Agency? And then why have you stayed there so long?
URSULA WILDER: All right. So I grew up overseas until I was 13. It was a hardship posting. My parents were missionaries, so we were in Paris and Brussels and Strasbourg. And so I had an extensive time in childhood overseas. My parents loved to travel, and I think that kind of formed my interest in the world in general. In fact, for a while I spoke better French than English because I only spoke English with my parents, and my siblings and I were in French schools, so we spoke French with each other.
And then after college, I came to Washington and I was going to be a physician at that point. I had planned on being a physician and done all the coursework as an undergraduate, but I had an older sister who's now a physician, and I looked at what she was doing in a first year of medical school and I said, "Not for me."
So then I had to figure out something else, and I fell into psychology. I had taken one undergraduate course, which I didn't like much because we were teaching pigeons to peck pellets and rats to run in mazes. And I thought, "I'm interested in the depths of the human mind." But I did take a couple of abnormal psychology courses and realized that this was for me. And so I began graduate school as a clinical psychologist.
Now, what drew me to the agency wasn't the agency, but a boyfriend who I met, who you know very well, you were both young CIA officers and cubicles way back in that time in 1979, 1980.
So I met Dennis and very quickly we knew we were going to – he's also a Methodist missionaries' child, so we said we have an arranged marriage through Methodist circles.
And I fell in love with this guy and found him interesting and and very engaged in the world and quite different in his thinking than I was. And that was intriguing. And I began to come to family days at the agency. So I started as a fiancée and then as a wife and meeting some of his friends and having discussions with him. And it was it was just very clear to me that this world of intelligence was full of intriguing people and an interesting mission.
I read some history books and read all about the scandals. And that was interesting as a psychological exercise. I was in graduate school for a decade and married to Dennis, and then I saw an advertisement for CIA psychologists and applied and was accepted. And so that was my pathway. It began in love, if you want to look at it that way. And bit by bit I was exposed to the people of the agency and found them interesting and kind and very supportive of family and actually –
MICHAEL MORELL: Strong sense of family, right?
URSULA WILDER: Yeah, yeah. Very deep and very eager to be kind to family and to be supportive of family. So I thought this would be a good place to serve.
And I also was attracted to the privacy aspect of this. This was – some would call it insular, I would call it a very closed community, but inside not closed at all. And I rather liked the idea of not getting caught up in the Washington swirl. Which was not something I was attracted to.
So I liked that the community was very ordinary people. We all hear this. We have visitors come to our buildings and they look around and expect Tom Cruise and Jessica Chastain and are like, "You're all very ordinary people." And that we are. And I did like that because I knew the work was fascinating, but the feel of it was was communal and not overly buying into the mystique that you could see in the movies. And I just intuited it, that it would be a good place to work. So that was how I came to the agency. Would you like me to talk about what I've done so far?
MICHAEL MORELL: How about, why did you just stick? Why did you stay? I think we'll get into some of the others later.
URSULA WILDER: I stayed because my impression was confirmed. And I realized that throughout my career I would be doing a series of very interesting things. It's like a bunch of mini-careers, all applied clinical psychology.
And again, I was impressed with the history of psychology as used by the agency all the way back to OSS days – the Office of Strategic Services our predecessor organization in World War II. Carl Jung was an agent of the OSS and he was handled by Allen Dulles. So you don't get much better than that.
And so I quickly read up on Jungian theory and what he had to say about world leaders and that drew me in as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you started, Ursula, to talk about the history, this fascinating relationship between Allen Dulles and Carl Jung. Take the history from there.
URSULA WILDER: All right. So, that era, OSS era, was the beginning of psychology applied to the intelligence mission, and Allen Dulles brought it. He was a visionary, in a sense.
And afterwards, he said, the world will likely never know the contributions that Dr. Jung made to the intelligence missions. We know that some of Carl Jung's reports made it all the way to the president, but he also tended to OSS agents who had had negative experiences. He, obviously, Carl Jung had, as the Germans would say, a fingertip feel sensor of the overall patterns of politics and morale across Europe because so many people came to him for treatment. And he also would be deeply immersed in cultural philosophy and cultural psychology.
And so we, in OSS days, also hired some cultural anthropologists who nowadays would be analysts, who would have regional specializations, who would work with the psychologists. So that was a big program then as well.
And so the two things came together very well in the OSS days. And then when CIA was formally founded, it was continued. Psychologists working with regional specialists and specialists of various sorts to understand – for a while it was the political dynamics of particular countries and eventually it moved into understanding the psychology of individual leaders or leader groups.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then why does CIA find doing psychological assessments of foreign leaders so valuable? Why do it?
URSULA WILDER: My PhD was completed at George Washington University and my dissertation advisor was Jerrold Post, who had had a 20-year career at CIA as a psychiatrist, and he founded the modern efforts of assessing world leaders because we began to see more and more of our leaders asking for what were essentially psychological questions.
Now, the famous and overt assessments that came out of the Camp David Accords were of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. President Carter commissioned those on the spot and while he was visiting the building. So it created a lot of immediate work. You know how that goes, Michael.
But these two assessments have now been released in redacted form. But there's a lot of public information about the famous Camp David Accord psych assessments. And Jimmy Carter said afterwards – he has several times made shout outs about how critically useful they were in that context to the ultimate outcome.
So when Camp David was created as a context where the negotiations could happen in a fluid kind of way, separate from all the concerns that normally press upon world leaders. But in that kind of context, the personality of the world leader tends to come to the fore as a major element that engages the negotiations positively or negatively.
And so the assessments were, in a quick kind of summary, that Anwar Sadat was very much a big-picture person, very much focused on his role in history, very imaginative, very much willing to take risks, self-evidently, and to break the mold. Whereas Begin was
a very detail-focused, lawyerly kind of person. And the more under stress he got, the more focused he got on keeping everything controlled, rigidly laid out.
And so these two personalities were either potentially on a course of mutual frustration, pr alternatively, they could balance each other and have the outcome that was had. And so they both were awarded the Nobel together.
As for the great outcome of those negotiations, one ended up depressed, Begin ended up in a chronic depressive state. And sadly, he was in that state when he died and Sadat was assassinated by those who did not cleave to his vision of change. And so that's a very publicly known story of how psychological assessments are used.
MICHAEL MORELL: So if you're the president and you get these assessments, it gives you a sense about how to approach an individual, to – I don't want to say to get what you want out of them, but, to get the best out of them. Right?
URSULA WILDER: Well, occasionally leaders wish to trigger certain reactions, okay. So that can happen. Figure out – or they don't want to trigger certain reactions. So you're looking for trigger points.
Alternatively, what you're thinking about is how this personality engages in negotiations and how best to mutually engage in negotiations.
I have a list here and I think it's pretty complete about the questions that Carter had, President Carter had, regarding the negotiations that he had set up at Camp David. So I think that's a very good – and he listed these in his memoir and it's pretty complete.
Let me just give a few of those. So he said in his memoir, written in 1983, called, Keeping Faith: "I wanted to know all about Begin and Sadat, of course, what had made them national leaders." That's a political question, okay.
"What was the root of their ambitions?" So that is what drives them from their core.
"What were their most important goals in life?" Now, goals in life is political, can include political goals, but it's also other goals as well.
So you think back to Begin – this is Ursula, not President Carter speaking – being focused on details, very lawyerly approach to life and Sadat being creative and very innovative. That would be important goals to be able to do those things each in contrasting ways.
"What events during the past years helped shape their characters?" Now, Ursula speaking again: the events during the past years can help shape a person's character, but the childhood events are the most important events to know. And if there are memoirs written, autobiographies written by the individuals, then that's where you get a goldmine to help answer the previous questions.
"What were their religious beliefs? Family relations and state of health?" State of health is critically important. If you think about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and how sick he was at the end of of his career and of his life, it can really have an impact.
Woodrow Wilson having a stroke and other leaders who've been depressed. Lincoln and Churchill had chronic depression. Caesar had a seizure disorder, so did Napoleon, Peter the Great.
MICHAEL MORELL: I know you can't comment on this. But there's lots of speculation about Putin's health and what impact that may be having on his decision-making regarding Ukraine.
URSULA WILDER: That is a very, very natural question to be asking. And age also plays into this.
So every decade of adult life has specific stages of development that we go through as adults. It doesn't just end in childhood. So the priorities and rhythms of a 20-, 30-year-old are very different than a 50- and 60-year-old, they're just very different orientations to reality. And when you're thinking through a leader, you have to bear in mind what their age would imply about their physical and mental state and emotional state. And then you have to put that in context.
So here's another interesting question from President Carter. "What are the relations of Sadat and Begin with other leaders, their peers?" That's always so interesting to watch.
MICHAEL MORELL: These are all great questions.
URSULA WILDER: Yeah, these are presidential questions.
And here's another one: "Likely reaction to pressure in a time of crisis?" And so we would see perhaps President Sadat becoming more creative, more visionary and more willing to break the mold. In a time of crisis, your personality crystallizes to a point, and we would have President Begin become perhaps more rigid and oppositional to change, which would not necessarily help with those negotiations.
"Commitments of political constituencies." That's a practical question, you need to know what they have to think about back home.
And here's an interesting one. "What were their attitude towards me?" – meaning President Carter – "and the United States?"
Well, of course, that's something you need to know about the leader, him or herself, and also about the country in general.
How about this one? "Whom do they really trust?" So, who are the others you can go to get a different perspective and to try to open something up that might have become
And this is self-evident once you say it: "What was their attitude towards one another?"
So those are just some of the questions that can be addressed. And I thought that we should quote President Carter, who was a visionary, and and used psychological science beautifully in this particular set of negotiations.
MICHAEL MORELL: Certainly my experience as a PDB briefer and then as the deputy director that other presidents have had the same interest. Maybe they didn't articulate the questions in a step-by-step way that President Carter did. But they've all been interested in this.
So, Ursula, how do you do a psychological assessment on a leader? And I guess the question that always gets asked is, you're not in the room with them, right? You're not spending time with them, seeing their reactions, right? So how do you do that?
URSULA WILDER: So the very first thing I do is find a regional specialist to be my partner. Whereas I know something of the psyche and the development of the psyche and personality features, etcetera, I can't know every cultural context. And the magic really happens, when you do a psych assessment, between the psychologist who brings all of the knowledge of the how psyche is developed, maintained, how it's framed, how it's defined, and you add that to regional knowledge, cultural backdrop, the idea of the structures that that leader is reacting to and in that you can really come up with a fairly accurate state of play of this person's personality in that particular context.
When I brief leaders, I always insist on bringing with me somebody who is expert in not necessarily the leader, although that's usually best, but in the context, because in the end, if I present and present well and have done a thorough assessment of the person, the important part is how the political behavior is coming out of that person and how it applies to our policymakers and to our customers. That's first thing you do.
And when I said earlier that way back in OSS days, we were hiring anthropologists and working with them, like Ruth Benedict – you'd be interested in this as a Japan expert – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was one of ours.
We've done this throughout our history of doing psych assessments, so that's the first thing you do.
The second thing you do is start thinking what you can't know about this person because you can't do the interview. You can't meet with the person. And you have to be careful to evaluate the data that you do have on the person, particularly in regards to where empty places might be.
Psychologists actually have it a little easier than most analysts because everything you see of a leader is behavior. And if you have enough behavior and have enough theory and
have somebody to help you understand the context, you can get a pretty good picture as to what's driving the person.
MICHAEL MORELL: You see a lot of patterns, right?
URSULA WILDER: Each person has patterns, and breaks in patterns, and that's what the goal is, in the early stages of an assessment, is to work out what the patterns are and where absences exist, where there should be something. So, where there should be empathy, okay, for example, or where there should be panic and it doesn't exist, or where there should be happiness and joy and and that's not there. And so you know what a fully functioning personality should be able to do and might look like. And then you apply that theory to what's beginning to emerge from all the research on the individual. Any psych assessment will do that.
And then you have to caveat because you can't meet with the person. It's the burden of historians and biographers everywhere. But based on the structures and the behaviors that you have, you can arrive at a good approximation, a profile, if you will, of the behavior.
This wonderful book that was awarded the Pulitzer for biography in 2010 about Cleopatra. There's no information about her inner life. So what the author did was just looked at the structures of everything she had to deal with: Rome, the economy, Alexandria, the opulence that was common to the Egyptian royalty, the constant killing of siblings and marrying of siblings, her knowledge of languages, just – throughout the book it's like reading a travelogue of that time in in history. And by the end of it you feel like you have a good grasp of this person, though not necessarily of her inner life, because the author avoids that. So here we have somebody who married and had relationships with both Julius Caesar and Anthony of Rome, and the author speaks about how this was politically astute.
In both cases she made a dramatic entrance. So she was carried in a bag and famously dropped at the feet of Julius Caesar. It wasn't a carpet, it was likely a laundry bag. And she made this big entrance with Anthony in this gold covered barge and perfume and music and glittering candlelight everywhere. So she knew how to make an entrance. So she did that and had these relationships in which children ensued.
But the author won't go beyond the political aspects of that, whereas a psychologist might be able to talk about what it was, and this multilingual person, this queen, who had bonded with her people more than she had with the royalty because she learned their language and publicly practiced their religion – what it was about her that was so charismatic and so, just to get back to the current time – we can do the same thing now.
So you do that, properly caveated, and then you start looking, going through the elements of a good psych assessment. Would you like me to do that with some examples? What would be useful at this point?
MICHAEL MORELL: Maybe we should actually move on because there's some good stuff coming here. So, Ursula, can you talk a little bit about the difference between a healthy world leader and a pathological world leader?
URSULA WILDER: So I, in my work on this topic, have very self-consciously toggled between healthy leaders and unhealthy leaders. So that my baseline doesn't get totally imbued with the unhealthier elements or the pathological features of personality.
So a healthy personality. Each of us has a unique personality and each of us has fault lines that are compensated for if we have a healthy personality by other, by different aspects of the personality. You can think of it as a mechanism, if you will.
So if you have a bit of selfishness or even a predatory attitude and you're healthy, that might be compensated by empathy. If you have a little bit of psychopathy, like you like to break rules, you like to pursue goals and break through boundaries, you might have some respect for the rule of law. And unfortunately, when all of us are in distress, we tend to get very rigid, with only one or two aspects of personality that come forward.
Although over time and as you age, you get more able to be totally present in all your pieces when – hopefully not in pieces – but all there to deal with situations. And it's harder to do that when you're young.
So healthier personalities are actually more difficult to assess because they're unique and you have to work out all these complexities which feature personality, empathy, extroversion, introversion, tendency to depression, tendency to a very detailed approach to reality, tendency to a more florid, kind of creative approach to reality. All of that in a healthy person, you have to try to find some evidence, and good evidence for, and then you put it together in an overall picture which usually includes four parts.
One is important: history that led to this. If you write that well, Michael, most people will just skim the rest because they'll know they feel like they know the person.
The next will be intellectual style – and we all have one.
And then personality features. And the last, social style. And that's a basic psych assessment. And it's hard to do with healthy people
Now, with unhealthy people, it's usually so evident that the problems are evident, that the goal there is to be able to make what you see congruent with the behavior that you see, make what you see in terms of personality congruent with the behavior.
So I'll go through some of the most salient personality issues that are present in leaders, political leaders.
One of the things you have to do, no matter how maladaptive or pathological they seem, though, is you have to be able to account for how they got where they got and how they
held power. So no matter how unattractive, unappealing, and broken a person seems, if they're holding on to political power, then something in their personality is enabling them to do that. And we owe it to our customers to define that.
So Stanley McChrystal, General Stanley McChrystal, wrote a book on leadership, and he makes the point – he's very structuralist in his orientation – that the structures and the political system and the cultural issues are more important than the individual. That's his approach. But he's very clear that he never allowed himself to underestimate an opponent. He talks about Zarqawi, who is famous, infamous for having beheaded a person as his –
MICHAEL MORELL: The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
URSULA WILDER: Yes –that was his self-introduction to the world, okay, doing this.
But I was talking with a colleague of mine who'd also recommended the book, who started his career at 23 as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. And he said, "Underestimating the opponent is fatal." And so we don't want to fall into that.
So even as I go through all of this, remember, when you think of leaders who demonstrate these capabilities, they also have something else that's keeping them in power, even if it's utter ruthlessness. So here are the pathological aspects to look at.
Let's focus on what's commonly called the "dark tetrad" of personality. And the tetrad are –the elements of that are – narcissism, paranoia, Machiavellianism and sadism.
Now, we could add psychopathy also here, but psychopaths are notoriously impulsive. And so they don't usually have the discipline to become leaders. They can be at the beck and call of leaders, but they very rarely reach the top. So I'm going to focus on the four that permit a person to still be orderly, be logical, get things done because it's necessary to being a leader.
So let's start with narcissism. So narcissism is something, as you mentioned earlier, that everybody has a piece of if they're are achiever of any sort, because it requires – to achieve, you have to have a vision. You have to be willing to pursue it. You have to be willing to pursue it against opposition. And you have to think that you know best what needs to happen in the moment if you're going to be a leader.
So a little bit of this is very important, even for the most altruistic leaders of all time. They still have to have a bit of this self confidence, this kind of almost fearless dominance of their vision.
Pathological narcissism is something entirely different than that. This is a person who can only be the center of events and is distorting reality because a person can't see beyond themselves. So that's what a pathological narcissist looks like. And their signature is narcissistic rage because they are so focused on being the center of events that they can't afford to be critiqued, to being criticized, to being put at the side of events. They they get
very rageful when this happens.
So a normal – there are two stages in life where narcissism is expected. One is when you're two years old. So when you see a little child at the grocery store and they're waving to everybody and everybody's waving back, it's so cute. If you don't wave back, they fall apart. And the other is adolescence. Okay, adolescents to be a little narcissistic because they have to be self-focused to develop their own identity. Then they kind of hopefully grow out of it.
So there's an adaptive part to narcissism, because some degree of it is necessary to every world leader, every achiever.
But in the more pathological sense and diagnostic sense, you can think of narcissism as a grandiose self navigating atop a sea of internal insecurity. So their egos are like balloons. Huge but very fragile. And any little prick on the balloon, just, it explodes in rage. And that is not adaptive if you're world leader.
So in a calm resting state, they're driven by dreams of glory and delusions of grandeur. But it all covers this deep insecurity. They lash out, are vengeful towards challenges and threats. Their emotional state is of protecting themselves against shame – this is how it gets set up in childhood. They cannot – and shame is a social construct. When you're ashamed, you're thinking that other people are seeing you negatively. It's different than guilt. And that is what a narcissist protects themselves against at all cost.
They're egocentric, obviously, always center stage. They have feelings of invulnerability and omnipotence, which they believe are true and that they're entitled to those feelings. They reject any vulnerability. They have contempt for inferiors.
So if you're negotiating, for example, with a personality like this, you have to be very, very careful not to trigger that rage – unless you want to. In some contexts, some leaders and some countries try to actually push buttons and trigger phobias. That's not our usual style.
MICHAEL MORELL: What about paranoia?
URSULA WILDER: So paranoia is a self that is terrorized and small and naked and afraid. This is unconscious; in the case of paranoia, it's people who are paranoid who have often been deeply abused in terrible ways when they were too small and vulnerable. And so they're this bleeding, vulnerable, terrified child in an Iron Man suit bristling with weapons and sensors. That is a paranoid person.
It's a disorder of thinking because they have a fundamental, permanent belief that there's always a threat, and some situations are not threatening. So you might be offering them an olive branch, but they will see that as a threat and react accordingly.
So it's logic, they're logical and they're very acutely sensing of what's going on around
them. They're very good at details, but their judgment is not necessarily accurate. So that's paranoid people.
Now, it's adaptive at times because, for example, studies have shown that people in the business sphere with a little bit of paranoia do better. And also there's the old saying in certain contexts, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you," right. Paranoia is often called the political disease, because if you're in political life, there's always somebody somebody after you.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah.
URSULA WILDER: And so healthy leaders know how to manage this so that they don't spiral into full-blown paranoia. They know how to keep themselves grounded. They – oftentimes it's by having people who they trust – because paranoids cannot trust, but healthy leaders can trust – tell them the things that nobody else will will say to them. And that keeps him kind of grounded. But unhealthy leaders just spiral into this pattern.
Paradoxically, a paranoid person will become calmer in a crisis. That's a bit of a tell. Because when there's a crisis, then the threat that they knew was always there has made it evident. Whereas everybody else is hitting the panic button.
MICHAEL MORELL: And they said, "Huh, finally, I knew it."
URSULA WILDER: I knew this was coming.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I knew it all along.
URSULA WILDER: And so they're defined by kind of this suspiciousness, there's this constant, like, coiled spring that actually has an effect on their bodies in the long term, this constant state of tension. But they're like coiled springs at any moment, waiting to jump into action against a threat.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I would imagine it makes them difficult to deal with.
URSULA WILDER: Well, they create the very thing that they say is there because they're hostile, they're suspicious. They see themselves as a center of of everything, including constant negativity. And they act accordingly. And then people do get angry at them and do get hostile. And then they say, "Well, it's there all along."
So, for example, if somebody extends an olive branch or tries to engage with them and they brutally reject it, then the person who extended the olive branch might, if it's, let's say, another leader, might respond with their teeth – you know all leaders, have them, their own aggression.
And then the paranoid person is like, "Yeah, I knew you were that way all along. And so it's a distortion of reality."
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So let's do the last two fairly quickly here. Machiavellianism and sadism.
URSULA WILDER: Okay. Very quickly then. Machiavellianism is strategic selfishness and they're cold. So Machiavelli said that the prince cannot afford the pleasures of normal morality. The Prince must do what's best for the prince and for the state.
So this is in very cold, calculating. They'll be virtuous if it's a tool that works. They'll be vicious if it's a tool that works.
Context is critical to them, to their behavior. They're expedient and opportunistic and flexible. They're incredibly sensitive to social situations because they're trying to figure out their poise and trying to figure out how to position themselves. And they're absent guilt or remorse – it just isn't there, for misbehaving or being selfish.
And fundamentally a Machiavellian has a dark view of humanity. So you never want to try to – with a paranoid – to try to engage with their positive feelings because they will see that you think them as being weak and having positive feelings and they know you're a threat. But it's the same with Machiavellians – if you try to engage your the positive feelings of a machiavellian, they will manipulate that. And if it means being positive back and your best friend, they'll do that. And so that's Machiavellians.
And let's quickly get to sadism. Now, Sadism, believe it or not, is not that central to leadership, except if it's like Ivan the Terrible, who was so sadistic that he killed his entire regions of Muscovy and ended up killing his own government. And so – but back to sadism. Sadism is taking pleasure in the pain of others.
And it's important to leadership because when you have that kind of power, there's ample opportunity to be sadistic. But it doesn't necessarily undermine, at least for a while, a person's ability to lead.
The classic example in our time is Saddam Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay.
And Ivan the Terrible is oftentimes listed as one of the great sadist leaders, an effective leader in some ways, before his sadism got him in trouble.
But Saddam Hussein liked – and Stalin also, he was friends with, kind of as much as a sadist can be – with Beria and they used to exchange stories of their sadistic plans. But Saddam Hussein used to take his sons, according to the sons, when they were of age, which is 7 or 8 years old, to Saddam's personal torture chambers and encouraged them to torture and to kill people. So those two didn't have a chance to do anything but become what they became.
So sadistic behavior is very noteworthy to a degree. But unlike the others, that can distort a person's thinking. A sadist, as long as their sadistic tendencies and desires are being met can be an effective leader within their context. At least, have an effective hold on power.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Ursula, we're running short on time. I just want to ask you one more question. How do customers, particularly senior customers, senior policymakers, typically respond to the work that clinical psychologists do on world leaders?
URSULA WILDER: Well, the first thing that happens is, when I start getting into sadism and paranoia and narcissism is they start pointing fingers at each other, at their aides, and saying, "Oh, now I know what's wrong, well, can you do a full diagnosis of this person?" So it can get very funny at times.
MICHAEL MORELL: Or start thinking about themselves? Right?
URSULA WILDER: Occasionally there is that question: Is this being done to us? And the answer to that is, "Well, if there's a culture that has a history of using psychologists and psychiatrists in their national security apparatus, you can assume that perhaps they are."
And so that's kind of an intriguing thought to a degree. They're mostly very engaged in the content. They find it very interesting. They're very interested in in the psychology of power and the psychology of leadership, because this is something that is part of their lives. And so, I don't know if I can ask you a question, but how are you reacting to all this?
MICHAEL MORELL: Well, I'm sitting here thinking about which of these things apply to me and which don't. So that's that's why I asked the question, as a matter of fact.
URSULA WILDER: Well I can tell you you're not a sadist
MICHAEL MORELL: That I know for sure.
URSULA WILDER: And you're not paranoid.
MICHAEL MORELL: I think there's a little bit of narcissism there, for sure, and a little bit of Machiavellianism.
URSULA WILDER: Well, every high achiever in the political sphere needs that. If you don't have it, you don't achieve. Even the leaders who are humanitarian have to have some Machiavellianism. You can call it political astuteness, you can call it that, and definitely a sense of of drive.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Ursula, thank you so much for joining us. We could talk about this for another two hours.
URSULA WILDER: It's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
MICHAEL MORELL: You're welcome. It's great to have you.
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