Political Intelligence

The traits that make or break leaders

The Example of John Edwards' Ego

John Edwards reminds us of the self-destructive potential of the ego.

Self confidence is a vital asset in any Presidential candidate. The very notion that one is capable of leading the world's single super power requires an ambition and audacity that is rare. And the ordeal that a candidate inevitably endures on the road to the White House means that any candidate needs to possess a self belief that remains rock solid through the relentless onslaught of slings and arrows that will doubtless follow. Every political operative who advises a would-be Presidential candidate, these days, warns their boss about this in no uncertain terms as he or she contemplates the endeavor.  A good example is the distinctly unromantic picture David Plouffe—Obama's '08 campaign manager—painted for Obama when he was in the early stages of considering his nascent campaign, “As you make this decision, just think your 2007 and 2008 could be wonderful if you don’t run. You don’t have reelection until 2010, you can take most weekends off, you can spend all the time with your family that you want. You could have a wonderful period of time. The book is selling well. But if you run, you’ll never see your family, you’ll be under pressure the likes of which you can’t imagine, and it will be absolutely miserable from a personal standpoint.”

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Edwards own briefing was doubtless equally brutal but by '08 he, of course, had run before. He was, therefore, no stranger to the inevitably grueling campaign ahead of him. Indeed, he virtually moved into Iowa in the years running up to the '08 campaign. The dogged determination this demonstrated was undoubtedly built on a level of confidence that had only grown since his last run for President. But this time, there was a difference. He started to believe his own rhetoric. Apparently, after walking off stage at the end of his early rallies, he would say to his staff, "They love me. They really do love me!" And on more than one occasion he insisted, with utter conviction, during campaign meetings "I will be the next President of the United States!" This is a perfect example of how the very ego that propels a person into the limelight can become the architect of his own destruction. The ego, in fact, has a tendency to make us believe that we have become immortal and, as a result, feel like there's nothing we can't do. From this perspective, having an affair, then lying about it to the world, then lying about major aspects of it—like being the father the child—at the very same time he was pretending to confess the truth, almost becomes explicable. He became convinced of his own indestructibility.

 

The most extra ordinary thing about John Edwards' ego, however, is that there is nothing extra ordinary about it. The ability to delude ourselves as to our own omnipotence exists within all of us and, indeed, there are echoes of it throughout modern society today. The calamity of the Iraq war was a result of the governments of George Bush and Tony Blair's belief in their own omniscience, and the bankers' belief in their own omnipotence is what nearly bought the entire financial system to a collapse. All of our egos are capable of becoming a Frankenstein's monster that turns round to destroy its maker. The main difference between a toxic ego and a productive one, however, is awareness. The minute we are able to identify that which is driving our decisions, its power begins to subside. That is why examples like John Edwards can always serve as valuable reminders to us all.

Russell Razzaque, M.D. is a British psychiatrist and author of Obama Karma: Lessons on Living Inspired by the 44th President.

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