Obama, Kevin Rudd, and the Quality of Leadership

Within a few days of Kevin Rudd's defeat as prime minister, the Australian Financial Review described how his victorious opponent, Tony Abbott, had employed a psychiatric report to exploit Rudd's known mental instabilities:

The document was not shown to Abbott, but rather remained within the strategy group as an informal check-list, often as a tool for comparison after Rudd had already behaved in ways that the Liberal strategists believed could be leveraged to their advantage. The Liberal war room had reached its own conclusions about Rudd long ago, based on his public behaviour and the damning revelations of his colleagues.

Describing grandiose narcissism as less a psychiatric disease and more a destructive character defect, the document suggested Rudd was held together by one key strut: an absolute conviction of intellectual superiority over everyone else. “Kick out that strut and he will collapse".

Rudd, the document went on, was vulnerable to any challenge to his self-belief that he was more widely read, smarter and more knowledgeable than anyone else “on the planet”. Such a condition of grandiose narcissism would make Rudd obsessively paranoid, excessively vindictive -- “prepared to wait years to get revenge”.

Rumors that Rudd was a few sandwiches short of a picnic had been circulating for some time, supported in part by camera outtakes which showed him in an actual Jekyll and Hyde mode, as shown in this video here. Even before Rudd was defeated, television specials were openly questioning his mental stability.

These defects are probably shocking to the ordinary public. Most of us will find it hard to accept that our countries might be led by persons very much worse than ourselves. It seems natural to think our social superiors are in fact superior -- how else did those post turtles get there? But the facts suggest otherwise. It's possible that our most exalted leaders are actually far less competent than we imagine, could we watch the outtakes of their lives.

The historical data is depressing. "Wild Bill" Donovan commissioned Professor Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, Dr. Ernst Kris of the New School for Social Research, and Dr. Bertram D. Lewin of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to prepare a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. The report rather unflatteringly concluded that Hitler was a pervert, psychopath, and a probable suicide. It's too bad no similar evaluation was made of Joseph Stalin, but the odds are that old Uncle Joe would have given Hitler a run for his money in the monster sweepstakes.

And although it's nice to think that the standard for world leaders picked up after the Second World War, the evidence hardly supports that view. Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, the Assad dynasty -- to mention only a few -- proved none too savory. It was recently reported that Kim Jong-un, who is only in his twenties, ordered the execution of his ex-girlfriend for making a video, along with "other members of North Korea's most famous pop groups." Their immediate families were forced to watch:

The onlookers were then sent to prison camps, victims of the regime's assumption of guilt by association, the reports stated.

“They were executed with machine guns while the key members of the Unhasu Orchestra, Wangjaesan Light Band and Moranbong Band as well as the families of the victims looked on,” said a Chinese source reported in the newspaper.

Kim is probably nuttier than a fruitcake. If he hasn't blown up the world it's for lack of means, rather than from restraint of character.

By these standards, old Kevin Rudd is pretty harmless. Bush-league in fact, mediocre in his faults. But Australian prime ministers aren't really in the business of taking on the really bad guys of history. Kevin Rudd doesn't have to match the cunning of the Putins, Saddams, and Assads of the world. If he can overawe the New South Wales union heavies, it is probably enough.

It's different for American presidents. By definition they are always matched against the nastiest, meanest, and most cunning rogues on the planet. Against people with names like Hitler and Stalin.