The charisma of fallible leaders and the limits of self-help

Doris McIlwain, Macquarie University

Steve Salerno SHAM, Self-Help and Actualization Movement: How the Gurus of the Self-Help Movement Make us Helpless London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2005 (288 pp). ISBN 1-85788-380-2 (paperback) RRP $26.95.

Steve Salerno’s recent book promises to explain how the gurus of the ‘Self-Help and Actualization Movement’, or ‘SHAM’, do the opposite of what they claim. Rather than empowering their followers, Salerno argues, SHAM leaders render them helpless—SHAM techniques don’t work and the movement’s messages are simplistic and recycled; nevertheless, SHAM leaders make a fortune out of their untested doctrines.

These are strong—and plausible—claims, but Salerno is not able to explain fully how SHAM works. He claims that these gurus make dupes of us all, but not all of us are, in fact, drawn to the movement. Salerno doesn’t analyse the differential appeal of the movement and its messages, nor how this appeal might get a grip on people’s psyches. Without an account of how movement appeal or leadership charisma might work to make people committed followers, his analysis of SHAM rhetoric fizzles.

Salerno argues that there is a dearth of good science ‘throughout SHAM’ (p. 13). He cites psychiatrist Sally Satel as saying that proponents of self-help ‘make no distinctions between science, pseudoscience and pure fantasy. They liberally dispense their dubious prescriptives as if they’d been blessed by [a National Institutes of Health] double-blind study’ (p. 13).

On trial here is the person rather than the message.

Yet Salerno’s critique is not exactly scientific itself. Despite his aspirations, the book is not a work of anthropology. Salerno’s assumptions are culturally embedded (representative perhaps of a subsection of America, now) and not transparent to himself (he assumes we all share or are interested in his invective). He moralises when explanation is required, puts forward ad hominem arguments, fails to consider growth as a continuous process, does not see the intersection of audience needs and movement promise as the basis of appeal, does not countenance the possibility that such needs could arise independently of SHAM having put them there, and does not countenance what might work if SHAM fails.

Physician Heal Thyself

The book explores a variety of self-help leaders, the products they offer, and the way that they appeal to certain market niches. He dates the rise of the guru, the self-help leader’s transformation ‘from simple advice giver to cultural and motivational soothsayer’ (p. 25), to the advent of Thomas A. Harris’s book I’m OK, You’re OK, in 1967. But these gurus may be modern variants of the charismatic leaders described in Max Weber’s (1922; 1963) keystone work on charisma.

A major theme of the book is that SHAM messages are unlikely to work for their consumers, given that they do not work for the gurus themselves. Salerno offers us a critique, of the ‘physician heal thyself’ variety, of some leaders of self-help genres.

He calls self-appointed, highly rated, radio therapist Dr Laura Schlessinger a ‘tragicomic poster girl for everything that’s wrong with SHAM’ (p. 41). Rather than a ‘zealous apostle of good’ she is ‘more like a mean-spirited hypocrite’ (p. 46); among her list of wrongs, Salerno includes ‘living without the benefits of matrimony for 8 years before making it official’ and ‘her capacity to reinvent herself’ (p. 46). She might acknowledge mistakes, he concedes, but in his eyes she has made too many to be taken as ‘an oracle of probity and righteousness’ (p. 49). He concludes by contesting whether radio therapy even works.

He questions John Gray’s degrees from Maharishi European Research University in Switzerland: ‘It’s not often that experts on human sexuality spend the better part of a decade as celibate monks, but that’s what Gray did, as secretary to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’ (p. 53), a school best known, says Salerno, for its emphasis on levitation. One might consider this a dandy sexual trick.

Salerno assumes SHAM gurus create the problems and the answers.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins falls down, despite ‘treading the line between brilliance and accessibility’ and although Salerno sees his seminars as ‘a nonstop advertisement for success’ (p. 79), because Robbins and his wife divorced after selling many books on the secrets of a lasting marriage. Salerno acknowledges that financial guru to women, Suze Orman’s message is on target, demonstrated by ‘her ability to examine money from an intensely female perspective that conceives financial issues in emotional terms’ (p. 61). But, he charges, ‘Orman has never married—a bit odd for a woman who spends so much time talking about balance in life’ (p. 60). Clearly for Salerno ‘balance’ in life must include marriage—for a woman.

On trial here is the person rather than the message. That their techniques may not work in the SHAM leaders’ own lives is interesting, but not damning if one seeks to understand a phenomenon rather than judge its proponents. Many scientific studies document average improvements at a group level relative to a control group. Even within a successful treatment group, there may still be individuals who do not improve. If we accept that self-help movement leaders may be rather more like gurus than scientists selling well-tested products, how we understand their appeal and relative success might also shift. Their message might have transformative potential even if they are not saints

Charismatic Messages: Targeting Unspoken Longings and Wishes

How do leaders’ transformative messages motivate full commitment to and immersion in the way of life they recommend? Charisma is likely to be part of the story. Weber’s classic analyses of charismatic leadership (1922/1968; 1963) suggest that those promoting personal or political transformation come in two broad styles: ‘emissary prophets’, whose message may set us free from bad old habits, or ‘emulatory prophets’ who embody their vision of a transformed human in their own lifestyle and being, so that identification with them will set us free.

If some self-help leaders are emissaries, then the number of their followers and the effects of their messages are more relevant than the degree to which their lives exemplify their message. A large following suggests something about a leader’s message is stirring up and giving shape to followers’ discontent or desire for transformation; that is a defining feature of ideology. The heart of a movement’s appeal is the mesh of its promise with a person’s often unspoken or unacknowledged longings (La Barre 1980; McIlwain 1994a; 1994b; Toch 1985). Salerno comes closest to recognising this aspect of charisma when criticising Suze Orman’s (granted rather weak) line that ‘Truth creates money, lies destroy it … But the line sounds so good. It’s something people want to be true, hope to be true. So it resonates with her buyers’ (p. 62).

In another classic work on charisma, Weston La Barre (1980) argues that ‘the compelling force comes not from the great man as he voices some new supernatural truth; he speaks to the powerful anti-commonsensical fantasy already present in the unconscious wish of each’. He continues: the great man’s message has an ‘“uncanny” consistency with each one’s private wish’ (p. 52). Salerno is alive to this form of appeal. He notes that marketing consultant Mark Dixon, who said that the message of motivational speakers he hired to enhance job performance ‘reminds us of when we were younger and more optimistic about life. The lure of the message is its hinted promise of transcendence … as the high priests claim we all have within us an untapped reserve of mettle’ (p. 102).

Salerno’s emphasis on money distracts him.

Yet susceptibility to charisma is not universal. Schein’s (1957) original and sophisticated ‘rite of passage’ model of brainwashing recognised that even when prison guards had the power of life and death over inmates, not everyone adopted the new ideology being imposed on them. Some merely complied in their behaviour while their personal beliefs remained unchanged. Those more likely to adopt the new beliefs had some pre-existing dissatisfaction or sense of isolation; the ideology had to key into pre-existing problems for full psychological commitment and personal transformation to occur (see also Schein, Schneier & Barker 1961).

Salerno assumes SHAM gurus create the problems and the answers: ‘influential leaders exploit their accrued credibility via products that supposedly are the answers to the problems the gurus have been building up in people’s minds’ (p. 63). Salerno’s analysis doesn’t recognise the interactional, lock and key aspect of movement appeal; the message has to key into, mobilise, and accentuate desires and longings already nascent before a follower comes into contact with a movement (Lofland & Stark 1965; McIlwain 1994a, 1994b). Charismatic leaders and cohesive groups can exert power to promote intrapsychic transformation in spiritual and/or political directions, and the potential follower’s personality is a crucial ingredient shaping that process. As Joseph Zygmunt (1972) notes, ‘an individual might be a potential candidate for either religious or political conversion, but undergo one rather than another, mainly because he finds his problems more meaningfully defined in one set of ideological symbols rather than another’ (p. 460). Explaining differential appeal means taking seriously movement differences; what the leaders embody and how they shape and convey their messages to resonate with the longings and needs of a sub-cultural group of people at a particular historical moment. It would be a worthy project, but it’s not one Salerno carries out.

Make money your way

Salerno’s critique seems fuelled by outrage that, although he views their self-help techniques as ineffective, the ‘false profits’ of SHAM certainly draw in a lot of money. Salerno’s emphasis on money perhaps distracts him from the more subtle promise of a movement the appeal of which hinges on making money your way. Even the most capitalistic strands of the self-help movement offer an alternative to feeling you have to give up your own vision of personal exploration and acknowledge money as the bottom line of everything. Capitalist mega-gods like Tony Robbins exemplify this, promoting the idea that each of us has a unique ‘giant within’ who, once awoken, can make money.

Blind spots and hidden assumptions: Continuous growth and relationships as soft stuff

Despite having actualisation in his title, Salerno has no notion of continuous psychological growth—rather he assumes one can be fixed up once and for all. For him, sales and sequels of self-help books are a bad sign: ‘If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us—at least not the same problem area and certainly not time and time again’ (p. 6).

Self-actualisation was a third force in psychology in the 1950s that suggested we could become free to pursue our continuous personal evolution and growth (Maslow 1968; Rogers 1956) in sharp contrast to the environmental control assumed by behaviourism and the determinism of inner drives posited by psychoanalysis. Once we met our ‘deficiency needs’ related to survival and conferred to us by evolution, we were free to explore our ‘being needs’ related to the meaning of life. Self-actualisation’s central thesis was that once you became the best thing that only you could be, joyous moments called ‘peak experiences’ accompanied the pleasure of operating at full potential.

There is a psychological dimension to sporting success.

Salerno expects more of a quick fix: ‘Failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM’ (p. 7). He suggests that the market is expanding in areas that are unlikely to produce real change. ‘It should come as no surprise that the fastest growing self-help sectors are also the softest and least utilitarian. Sales of inspirational, spiritual and relationship-oriented programs and materials constitute a third of overall SHAM dollar volume and are tracking upward’ (p. 9). Relationships as ‘soft’ and ‘least utilitarian’? Where was this man to miss (at least) the last 50 years of mainstream psychology and sociology, not to mention the feminist revolution? He traffics an admixture of his own convictions, anecdotes from interviews (from a wonderful array of people), and statistics on how much these products retail for. While money might be the bottom line for him (rather than ‘soft’ issues like relationships), it might be that those drawn to self-help seek an alternative to a materialistic worldview.

Narcissism: Symptoms without a Framework

While charisma is likely to sweeten the leader’s message and render it more psychologically appealing (Lindholm 1988; 1990), narcissism is the attribute of the follower’s personality that renders them most open to charismatic leaders. Many cultural theorists have outlined the ways narcissism is intensified at certain historical moments. Salerno pinpoints a particularly Western dilemma relevant to narcissism: the inevitable tension between personal growth and involvement in the greater good of the collective. He asks:

Does it not make sense that a society in which everyone seeks personal fulfilment might have a hard time holding together? … that the self-centred individuals who compose that society would find it difficult to relate to, let alone make sincere concessions to other self-centred individuals? (p. 39).

Scholars of cultural variants of narcissism like Freud (1908), Lasch (1979), Westen (1985) and Whitebook (1995) recognise the challenge of finding a resolution to narcissism: the individual must trim back her own self-love and lust for omnipotence, and face transience, interdependence, and the limits of self-reliance and personal power.

Salerno claims that SHAM makes us both victim and omnipotent, and in so far as a narcissist has a fragile, vulnerable core surrounded by a defensive, grandiose, omnipotent mask, the framework of narcissism is highly relevant to integrate his discussion. He argues that SHAM turns us into a world of victims ‘dogged by self-destructive tendencies and the demons of our past’ (p. 31). Within the SHAM framework, he says, one doesn’t have relationships, one is ‘codependent’, and health means recovering a healthy sense of self via forsaking an excessive or unhealthy concern for others. Self-psychologist and psychoanalyst Kohut spoke of this in the 1970s (1971; 1977), and Christopher Lasch (1979) gave intelligent voice to the cultural dimensions of narcissism in a stunning, popular book The Culture of Narcissism.As Salerno notes, this cult of self has gone too far. The psychological literature shows that baseless (non-contingent) self-esteem, where one passionately wants to think better of oneself than one has the skills and abilities to undergird, has its dangers. It’s a thin-skinned way to live that leaves one vulnerable to narcissistic rage and wildly fluctuating emotions at the merest whisper of a perceived slight (Bushman & Baumeister 1998; Rhodewalt & Morf 1998).

Omnipotence, self-focus, what’s in it for me?

Salerno notes that at first the self-help movement portrayed people as the helpless victims of past wrongs, but there has been a move away from this to, in his view, an equally unhelpful slogan: ‘You’re not powerless—you’re omnipotent!’ The promise of omnipotence is clearly one that would draw narcissistic people into unhealthy charismatic relationships.

In therapy you are able to be ‘larger than life’.

Salerno argues that the divorce rate in America has surged because people are ‘a tad too focussed on their own fulfilment’ rather than marrying in order to build ‘something bigger than you’ (p. 36 ). As Freud, Lasch, and Whitebook suggest, recognising and valuing something larger than oneself is vital for resolving narcissism. It’s here that we see most clearly how Salerno’s critique lacks the framework necessary to integrate the signs of narcissism: omnipotence, self-focus, and an exploitative ‘what’s in it for me’ interpersonal style. He suggests that rather than aiming to give something to marriage, people increasingly want something from marriage. He claims that ‘it’s hard to see such mental turnabouts as anything other than a consequence of SHAM-bred “insights”’ (p. 36).

He identifies ‘empowerment’ as a central SHAM concept. Empowerment, he argues, imposes the idea that you can achieve whatever you set out to achieve and that you fail because you don’t really want what you say you want, or you aren’t sufficiently committed to achieving it. Empowerment promotes a worldview that ‘admit[s] no circumstances that are unresponsive to the human will’ (p. 40). Salerno’s concept of empowerment is better understood as a definition of omnipotence, and attachment to this idea does set people up for blaming themselves for much that is out of their control, and for aspiring to the unachievable. This is very much the stuff of narcissism, and is likely to lead to hollow self-esteem where people defensively masquerade as self-sufficient, completely in control, and without dependency needs. The mask is readily shattered when its wearer experiences things out of their control, and turns to rage when the world does not conform to their desires and commands.

All you gotta do is want it

A variant of SHAM is what Salerno terms ‘Sportsthink’—a motivational and psychological approach to sporting success which can be transported into other realms where exceptional achievement is required. He argues that Sportsthink privileges having the right attitude and intention over component behavioural skills as contributors to success, and that ‘Sportsthink shares SHAM’s propensity for building false and hurtful expectations’ (p. 100). He continues: ‘after all … if success happens for magical reasons that have nothing to do with skill or wit or looks … all you gotta do is want it’ (p. 102). It’s part of a ‘belief is all it takes’ approach to sport, with people ‘crediting their sporting success to everything but their physical skills’ (p. 95). What about strength, he asks, and hand-eye co-ordination? He says athletes walk with pride because they have specific competencies in the realms in which they compete, and that you can’t just paste confidence on to yourself, adding that ‘sports-related inspirational talks and business plans have never been empirically validated as a way of improving performance, capacity, innovation—anything’ (p. 101).

Yet there is a psychological dimension to sporting success. Indeed, Salerno cites what seems to me very sane advice given by Jeff Greenwald, (formerly number one tennis player): one ‘should filter out extraneous concerns … excessive concern about winning or losing … to keep your mind on the specifics of what you need to be doing at that moment, and let the end result take care of itself’ (p. 99). Although behavioural skills and hard physical training are crucial to sporting success, having the right attitude to winning and losing seems relevant to preventing excessive anxiety attenuating those very skills. Sports men and women acquire valuable psychological skills, many of which may be relevant to other domains of excellence.

Looking through schemas: looking at schemas

Self-help movements do appeal to many people, and they offer ways of escaping a lifestyle rut, and promise freshness and change. However, Salerno bypasses a detailed examination of personal transformation and self-change, and so he is not well equipped to analyse how, exactly, SHAM makes us helpless, or what might constitute a movement that is genuinely able to offer transformation.

Self-help is perhaps a way of attempting therapy.

There is a glimmer of such a project in the book, when Salerno discusses Tony Robbins’s earlier affiliation with a therapy movement that assumed:

how we define things and explain life to ourselves determines how we relate to those things and react to life in general. It follows that changing those explanations, or the way people subjectively interpret what’s happening to and around them, should change the way people operate in the world (p. 81).

The explanations we give to ourselves are also called ‘schemas’—organised affective and cognitive templates, through which we view the world. Many psychotherapies explicitly seek to make a person aware of her schemas, so she can appraise the usefulness of those schemas, and tinker with them if they need changing or updating. Since one views the world through such templates, it is very difficult on one’s own to become aware of them, and the role that they play in making us selectively attend to and interpret events (McIlwain 2006). Often our schemas maintain a sense of continuity, working in ways that keep our inner sense of ourselves and of the world the same. It is easier to pick up on the way schemas filter our perceptions and memories in an interpersonal setting like friendship or therapy. In therapy you are able to be ‘larger than life’ because you are able to borrow temporarily some of the therapist’s skills to hold and contain your own anxiety about becoming aware of, destabilising and letting go of old patterns of feeling and behaving. Not everyone can afford or is prepared to take this path. Many court change via books or attendance at motivational events promising rapid self-change.

Deutsch suggests that those especially open to uncanny, charismatic relationships (that the larger than life self-help gurus seem to offer) are those who had ‘early traumatic disappointments with one or both parents (1983, p. 121). These people pursue a remedy by ‘seeking out in adult life new idealized objects with which to merge’. This kind of fused and idealising bond also occurs in therapy, and skilled therapists recognise its basis in the past. Ideally, therapists do not see such idealisation as evidence of their own remarkable charismatic powers (or divinity!). Called ‘transference’ by Freud, the bond is one means by which some therapists attempt to have you see your own schemas at work, as they play themselves out in the relationship. Change involves interpersonal work, and the bond of transference functions ‘to induce the person to perform a piece of psychical work … which involves a permanent alteration in his mental economy’ (Freud 1925, p. 42). Self-help is perhaps a way of attempting therapy. Sequels and continued demand for books and talks show that the needs persist, and that pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps perhaps has its limitations.


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Dr McIlwain is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Macquarie University. Her research interests are in charismatic leader-follower relationships, and affective profiles of differing personality styles, such as narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths. Recently she has been particularly interested in how affective immersion shapes perception and memory in different personality styles.

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