How survivalist leaders present a toxic danger

A capacity for self-preservation is a threat to everyone else

Survivors are one thing, heroes of actual events or circumstances that would have tested the mettle of most human beings. But survivalists, also known as preppers, are something quite different.

They are regular people with jobs and homes who are fearful about the future and are constantly preparing for some cataclysmic event that hasn't happened and hasn't tested them.

Survivalists invest in building underground bunkers, hoarding food, clothes, communication devices and weapons that all offer them peace of mind.

Chris Jackson, a professor in the school of management at UNSW Business School, has been studying this personality type, and while confirming that in a disaster situation their capacity for self-preservation is certainly high, he has also revealed the threat they pose more widely to the general population in day-to-day situations.

Survivalists are growing in number. Fuelled by the availability of 24-hour online news, more and more people are agitated about something, and appear to be getting ready for Armageddon.

Philip Lamy, a professor of sociology and anthropology at US university Castleton, traces the origins of survivalism back to the advent of the nuclear age, the Cold War and military conflicts in Vietnam and Korea.

Back then, interest in disaster preparedness gave rise to niche groups often living off the grid, but it has now become mainstream in the US and has spread to the UK and other European countries during the past few years.

Today, 3.7 million Americans classify themselves as survivalists. The National Preppers and Survivalists Expo in the US regularly draws thousands of delegates to hear speakers on topics such as 'How to survive the die-off' or 'How to administer emergency medication'.

Alongside is an expansive business industry catering to the mass paranoia. The freeze-dried survival food industry alone is estimated to be worth US$400 million (A$530 million) annually and is sold in Wal-Mart and on the popular Home Shopping Network TV channel.

'There is a continual tension between survival for the group and natural selection that only benefits individuals'


Collective anxiety

In his survivalist book, Emergency: This book will save your life, former New York Times journalist Neil Strauss says: "I think what we're experiencing is a kind of generational panic attack. We were born in a good time. We experienced booming technology and rising stock prices. And then, all of a sudden 9/11 happened, Katrina happened, the economy plunged. And it's like the rug being pulled out from under our feet."

That was written almost 10 years ago. Given the present state of the world – the threats, whether from natural disasters, random terrorist attacks, or nerve agent poison released in the middle of a sedate British high street – even an optimist would concede that life has become more alarming since then.

And the more our faith in the institutions set up to serve and protect us diminishes, the more the collective anxiety rises, and the more likely it is that some of us will take matters into our own hands.

The problem, says Jackson, is that survivalists tend to be quite malevolent. They are more likely to be narcissists, disagreeable and manipulative, low in rationality and high in psychopathy. And in the US, they are also more likely to be armed.

In his paper, Are survivalists malevolent?, Jackson developed a Survivalist Behaviour Questionnaire to isolate the personality characteristics that may provide important information about people who present a danger to society.

"Survival is best achieved when everyone works together as a team with a leader who is also a team player," Jackson says.

"However, that's not the way humanity is built. From a Darwinistic perspective, an even better way for an individual to survive is to take from the group and not to give to the group. There is a continual tension between survival for the group and natural selection that only benefits individuals," says Jackson.

Narcissist heroes

In recent years, that bold, take-the-initiative characteristic has become elevated in the public consciousness. In fact, it may be said that survivalism has had a bit of a makeover with a glut of reality TV shows suggesting it's all just a bit of fun and there's a narcissist-hero for us to elect and crown at the end of it.

While seeing who can last the longest in the jungle on a diet of beetles may be entertaining, the kind of people who display these gung-ho qualities are also often found in positions of power. Think Donald Trump, think Kim Jong-un, think Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, think … the list goes on.

In a paper published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, associate professor Nicole Mead from the University of Melbourne found that narcissists, such as those mentioned above, tend to rise to and then abuse positions of power.

"Narcissists can feel a sense of entitlement – they expect and demand respect from others as well as special privileges," says Mead.

Once they have power, they can turn into oppressors and bullies and "are willing to exploit others to get what they want", she adds.

Survivalists can be feted as hugely creative and entrepreneurial, particularly during times of disruptive innovation such as we are now experiencing, says Jackson.

He adds that Elon Musk is perhaps the poster boy for the risk-taking business leader of the modern era, but that success-at-all-costs survivalism could also be seen as a product of "the more they have, the more they have to lose, and the more protective they become of their position".

'We all need an element of narcissism. Without it there would be no self-esteem, no creativity, no leadership'


A hall of mirrors

Why do some organisations tolerate dysfunctional business leaders?

Manfred Kets de Vries, a Dutch-born psychologist and professor at INSEAD, sheds light on what he calls the "darker side of leadership".

In an interview with The Irish Times, he describes how many organisations have this "gulag" or "yes" culture, often driven by a narcissist chief executive weighed down by the weight of his or her own hubris.

"We all need an element of narcissism. Without it there would be no self-esteem, no creativity, no leadership. But very quickly this can turn into a personality disorder, and you end up with malignant narcissists that frequently destroy organisations and then move on. They live in a hall of mirrors surrounded by yes-sayers and only hear what they want to hear. There is no reality check," de Vries says

He has advice for business leaders who may have enough self-awareness to recognise the negative side of their survivalist personality traits: Encourage a culture in which employees have a healthy disrespect for the boss.

"They should also work on developing their emotional intelligence to pick up on subtle information and undercurrents, get in touch with their strengths and weaknesses, start listening to people and think about what effect their behaviour has on others," de Vries says.

"If senior managers don't have their own houses in order they stand little chance of getting the best out of their people and may end up creating a toxic organisational culture that ultimately costs the business a lot of money."


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