This is our truth, tell us yours
We wrote about the Kids Company debacle yesterday. At the heart of it is a charismatic leader, Camilla Batmanghelidjh who could reasonably argue that some of the commentary about her, and her awful, posturing preening manner, is racist, or at least founded in a fear of the other. Similarly, she could reasonably argue that some of the criticism of her organization’s work in areas with large BME populations, like South London, has a racist undercurrent. She probably will, before long.
However, it is neither racist, nor unfair, to point out that she is the daughter of a charlatan, whose own practice has a huge element of charlatanry about about it. Despite her Persian name and outlandish dress sense, there lies a very mundane story of a privileged woman with a public school education and the right connections to turn a diploma in psychotherapy and a degree in theatre studies into a platform upon which she could gather the audience she desired.
A word of warning here, dear reader. As a blog we try to eschew sidewalk diagnosis of psychological issues, whilst acknowledging that if something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’ll probably taste good with pancakes and plum sauce between the starters and the main course. I don’t know why Camilla Batmanghelidjh behaves like a charismatic leader with narcissistic drives, but that’s what she looks like.
The problem with charismatic narcissists like Batmanghelidjh (and Tony Blair) is that conventional scrutiny techniques don’t work on them. As a new trustee of a charity, you might find yourself going on training courses to understand governance arrangements, or read a balance sheet. The odds are, you won’t go on a training course to understand leaders whose primary currency is blowjobs, not money.
I’m adopting, of course, Leo Abse’s wise and sharp edged analysis that, for narcissists like Blair and Bill Clinton, the key motive was their narcissism, and the (metaphorical and real) blowjobs people were willing to give them, rather than money. Power is the platform from which the whole world has to give you a blowjob, not the end in itself.
As a charlatan, Batmanghelidjh is a highly successful lobbyist and performer. You can only wonder at the hard work the dozens of well connected members of her independent childrens task force are going to have to do to explain why they were taken in by someone so transparently incompetent. It’s not as if the audtiorsof Kids Co weren’t predicting trouble – they’d made clear that running a charity with such small reserves was a recipe for disaster, yet Batmanghelidjh was able to get dozens of experts to signup to her taskforce that was going to financially model a new framework for childrens’ services for every local authority in England.
Narcissism and hubris often walk hand in hand. On the Kids Co website Batmanghelidjh says ‘Camila is committed to independently continuing her work as an advocate and compassionate witness for Britain’s most vulnerable children and young people.’ Others might conclude that a period of silence might be appropriate, but, like her father with his unscientific and bizarre theories about the curative power of water, one fears that Batmanghelidjh will continue to tell us that she is right, and the world is wrong.
Let’s be clear about this. KidsCo will have done some good work. In the name of the charismatic leader many decent and careful workers will have done their best to improve the lives of some of the clients drawn to Kids Co. Whether the same outcomes could have been achieved more efficiently without the intervention of Batmanghelidjh and her narcissism is just one of the questions that needs to be answered.
My experience is that charismatic narcissists and the politicians who flock to them make dreadful organizational leaders. Their need to have a platform, and their refusal to step aside even when it is in the organization’s best interests makes them dangerous; they’re more prone to indulge themselves in a siege of Masada ending to their reign than rational succession planning. So, it seems, with Kids Co.
This quote from an uncritical Guardian puff piece about Batmanghelidjh should strike fear into the heart of any charity trustee. How long will she stay with Kids Company? “I will do it up to a point where my physical existence can’t sustain it, and then someone else will take it a bit further,” she says. The day on which a charity leader says they can’t envisage walking away is the day the trustees should remove them. No questions, no apologies. Any leader has to be able to envisage that the world might change, and that their skillset might not be the one required. If they can’t, they represent a huge risk. Sometimes, the scrutiny of leaders must focus on the why, not the what, and in this case, the why, the narcissism, the self serving performance of a task for the psychological benefit of Batmanghelidjh, not only for the good of the clients, was glaringly apparent.