Business Leaders and Narcissism

Narcissistic leadership is a leadership style in which the leader is ultimately only interested in him/herself. Their priority is themselves and can be at the expense of their company. This type of leader exhibits the characteristics of a narcissist: arrogance, dominance and hostility. It is a fairly common leadership style. The narcissism may range anywhere from healthy to destructive. Destructive narcissistic leadership is driven by excessive arrogance, total self-absorption, and an egotistical need for power and admiration.”

Narcissism and leadership have been widely studied and there is considerable evidence that narcissists do succeed in attaining leadership positions. This makes sense as they are confident, assertive, and focused on self-interests. They know what they want (to be the leader), they strongly believe they are the best person for the job, and they have no doubts whatsoever that they should be in charge.

But…is this necessarily a bad thing?

With narcissism, too little or too much is not good. Too little narcissism and the leader will lack the confidence to do what it takes to get the position or to fulfill the negative responsibilities of the job (like firing people). Too much narcissism and the leader may believe that he or she is better than others, above the law and so on.

Leadership expert and psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby, author of The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership, talks about “productive narcissists” He believes it takes a healthy dose of narcissism for leaders of huge corporations to have great visions and achieve them. He argues that many of the revered leaders of the technological revolution, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, are productive narcissists. Narcissism helps these leaders accomplish extraordinary things, but it can also be their ruin.

Leaders who are too narcissistic are convinced they are right and are too sensitive to criticism leading them to ignore legitimate warnings. Also, because they lack empathy, they are insensitive to the impact of their behavior on others. Steve Jobs and Donald Trump have berated and publicly humiliated subordinates. Moreover, leaders with too much narcissism begin to believe that they are above the law and they may engage in illegal or unethical behavior – and that is the downfall of many narcissists.

Maccoby differentiates between “productive narcissists” and “unproductive narcissists”. He stated that “productive narcissists still tend to be over-sensitive to criticism, over-competitive, isolated, and grandiose,” but that “what draws them out is that they have a sense of freedom to do whatever they want rather than feeling constantly constrained by circumstances.” Through their charisma they are able to “draw people into their vision, and produce a cohort of disciples who will pursue the dream for all it’s worth.”

Strengths of Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissists are independent and not easily impressed. They are the innovators, driven to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their companies, but they go beyond that- they also pose the critical questions. They want to learn “everything about everything” that affects the company and its products. They want to be admired, not loved. For the most part, they are not troubled by a conscience so they can be highly aggressive in pursuit of their goals.

Interestingly, it is narcissists who come closest to our image of great leaders. There are two reasons for this: they have compelling visions for companies and they have an ability to attract followers with their charisma.

Great Vision. If you ask a group of managers to define a leader, a typical response will be, “A person with vision”. Productive narcissists do tend to have visions because they are by nature people who see the big picture. They are not analyzers or number crunchers. Nor do they try to infer the future—they attempt to create it.

Scores of Followers. The simplest definition of a leader is someone whom other people will follow. Indeed, narcissists are especially gifted in attracting followers and often they do this through language. Narcissists believe that the right words can move mountains and that inspiring speeches can change people. Narcissistic leaders are skillful orators and this is one of the reasons they are so charismatic. This charisma is more of a two-way affair than most people realize. Although it is not always obvious, narcissistic leaders are in fact quite dependent on their followers-they need affirmation and adulation from their admirers.

Weaknesses of Narcissistic Leaders

Despite the pleasant feelings that charisma induces in others, narcissists are not comfortable with their own emotions. They listen only for the kind of information they seek. They don’t learn easily from others. They don’t like to teach or mentor, preferring to indoctrinate and make speeches. They dominate meetings with their subordinates.

Sensitive to Criticism: Given their difficulty with acknowledging their own feelings, they are uncomfortable with other people expressing theirs—especially their negative feelings. Narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism or slights. They cannot tolerate dissent. In fact, they can be extremely abrasive with employees who doubt them or argue with them. They think nothing of publicly humiliating subordinates (think Steve Jobs in particular). Despite narcissistic leaders saying that they want teamwork, in practice, what they really want is a group of “yes-men”.

Poor Listeners: A significant consequence of this inability to handle criticism is that narcissistic leaders do not listen to others, especially when they feel threatened or attacked. Some narcissists are so defensive that they go so far as to make a virtue of the fact that they don’t listen. As one CEO bluntly put it, “I didn’t get here by listening to people!”

Lack of Empathy: Although they desire empathy from others, productive narcissists are not empathetic themselves. Indeed, lack of empathy is a characteristic weakness of some of the most charismatic and successful leaders, such as Bill Gates and Andy Grove.

However, in times of needed radical change, lack of empathy can actually be a strength. A narcissist finds it easier than most others to buy and sell companies, to close and move facilities, and to lay off employees-decisions that make many people angry or sad. But narcissistic leaders typically have few regrets.

An Intense Desire to Compete. Narcissistic leaders are ruthless in their pursuit of victory. All successful leaders want to win, but narcissists are not restrained by conscience. Organizations led by narcissists are often characterized by intense internal competition. Their passion to win evolves from both the promise of glory and the fear of extinction. It is a potent brew that energizes organizations, creating a sense of urgency and competitiveness.

Example of a Productive Narcissist

Donald Trump is known for an ego which matches the size of his skyscraper, Trump Towers. It’s easy to label New York’s famous real estate developer (and reality TV star) as a narcissist given his outspoken self-promotion and his gold-plated sense of style. Although traditionally, the narcissistic personality-marked by a grandiose sense of self and lack of empathy for others-was considered a liability in the business world. Their arrogance, envy of others, and reluctance to take blame or share credit indicates that narcissists are not “team players.”

But not all narcissists are bad and Maccoby argues that some who fall into this personality type are natural leaders. “These people have freedom from internal constraints,” says Maccoby, “and this gives them the ability to change the world.”

Maccoby says Trump clearly fits the description of a productive narcissist. Successful narcissists possess “strategic intelligence”. That means they exhibit foresight, are “systems” thinkers who don’t get hung up on details, are good motivators, and importantly-they partner with people who complement them. “The most successful ones know to partner with a more obsessive type to keep them out of trouble,” Maccoby says. An egotistical real estate mogul who lacks strategic intelligence, for example, may just buy, buy, and buy-without executing a comprehensive long-term vision.

There is good news and bad news for the companies who have narcissistic leaders. On one hand, narcissists have the ability to envision new directions for a company, the courage and self-belief to make the necessary changes, and the skills to chart the course (if they possess strategic intelligence). The bad news is that these same qualities of vision and self-belief can make them difficult to work with and resistant to advice. Narcissists aren’t necessarily more effective as business leaders than other personality types but different leadership tasks, different industries, and different social-economic environments favor some types of personality over others. Maccoby argues that times today suit the narcisstic personality better than ever before. If he is right, understanding how to work with a narcissist may be the best career investment you can make.

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissisticleadership
  2. http://www.maccoby.com/Articles/NarLeaders.shtml
  3. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201102/narcissism-and-leadership
  4. http://www.ceoforum.com.au/article-detail.cfm?cid=8497&t=/The-Narcissistic-Leader/
  5. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200401/big-egos-in-business
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About Alexander Burgemeester

2 Responses to “Business Leaders and Narcissism”

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  1. John says:

    ‘.. it takes a healthy dose of narcissism for leaders of huge corporations to have great visions and achieve them..’

    Yes narcissists are often found in high places, not because success at this level requires this type of personality but because they have conspired against and have the guile to drive out those visionaries who are not narcissistic.

    ‘.. in times of needed radical change, lack of empathy can actually be a strength. A narcissist finds it easier than most others to buy and sell companies, to close and move facilities, and to lay off employees-decisions that make many people angry or sad. But narcissistic leaders typically have few regrets’

    Really?? When can a lack of empathy and a willingness to trample on good people be a virtue? Can only people raised without empathy make tough decisions?

  2. Iga says:

    I think people are easily brainwashed. The general public would like to believe in the good. Unfortunately, most of these people have motives and driven to excel for themselves.

    I wish people would question why others want to do good. Look what happened with Scientology. They feed on the fantasy of others. Its the old saying…. If its sounds too good to be true…Its not.

    I knew Donald Trump would win the election. He is a narcissist and con’d everyone into believing change. And the fact that he is a narcissist shows how he can manipulate people. This is the narcissist’s ultimate dream. President!

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