Imagine the President of a corporation with a timid disposition; one who literally cowers when meeting another leader. That wouldn’t be really inspiring, would it? Now, imagine a President who interrupts others and never accepts being wrong; who uses power to intimidate and does not listen to others. How would you feel?
Sometimes, leaders are described as narcissistic. Usually, that descriptor is not complimentary and meant as a criticism. But can a leader be effective without some degree of narcissism? After all, a strong ego helps one to have confidence is her or his leadership capacity.
Narcissism has been defined as the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes. The term originated from Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. But if we agree that the process of leadership development includes self-knowledge and self-confidence, we can conclude that same degree of narcissism is necessary for a leader to succeed. The more we know our strengths and shortcomings, the better we can appreciate how we relate to others. A full understanding of who we are leads to self-confidence in our attributes and abilities.
Michael Maccoby, in his Harvard Business Review article, talks about the “productive narcissist. He wrote, “Leaders such as Jack Welch and George Soros are examples of productive narcissists. They are gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy.” He went on to say the productive narcissists understand vision and can see the big picture. They attract followers easily. But Maccoby also notes that too much narcissism leads to sensitivity to criticism, lack of empathy and distaste for mentoring.
The challenge is to moderate self-confidence. Too little self-confidence results in timidity and uncertainty. Too much self-confidence leads to omnipotence. The leader needs to create an aura of confidence because followers want to know that she or he is competent, prepared and committed. It is when the leader believes that the followers don’t matter that the opportunity for narcissism emerges.
The narcissist leader is an individual who believes that they have the capacity to lead with no input from followers or others. This situation often arises with success and fame as a leader with attention from followers, peers and others through the media. The spotlight shines brightly and the once unknown leader becomes a celebrity. The tipping point is when the leader believes the press reports. They no longer need advice or feedback. Status and notoriety emerge where the leader stands alone and the followers and others are spectators. These are the narcissist leaders who lead for their own edification, not for the good of the organization or society.
In a recent New York Times article, Scott Lilienfeld and Ashley Watts write about a study of U.S. presidents. “We found that narcissism, specifically ‘grandiose narcissism’ — an amalgam of flamboyance, immodesty and dominance — was associated with greater overall presidential success. He and his colleagues also found that grandiose narcissism was associated with certain negative outcomes, including unethical behaviors like stealing, abusing power and bending rules. They cite the two highest scorers on grandiose narcissism as Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt; the two lowest James Monroe and Millard Fillmore. Finally, they also considered a less well-understood dimension of narcissism: “vulnerable narcissism,” a trait associated with being self-absorbed and thin-skinned (think of Richard M. Nixon, who was a high scorer on this trait). The study reinforces that good and bad of narcissism in leaders.
I once worked for a vulnerable narcissist who was thin-skinned and unable to hear advice from anyone except himself. External accolades (and rewards) were given to him which increased his confidence in himself. It was clear that we were not relevant and working was not fun. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to work for a productive narcissist who infused a big dream into the organization. None of us believed his vision possible but he created an energy from his self-confidence that allowed us to achieve great things beyond our expectations.
In recent times, people like Jack Welsh and Donald Trump have been criticized as narcissists. Rarely is the distinction made between productive and vulnerable. Often, one person’s judgment conflicts with the opinions of others. Perhaps the only distinction is how you react to the individual.
To combat the temptation of extreme narcissism, leaders should have someone with who they can learn about their “shadow self” – what others see in them that they do not see themselves. Every leader needs a colleague or friend who is willing to tell it like it is. We call this courageous communication. At the same time, the leader must be willing to listen and understand.
There is a fine line between effective sand narcissistic leadership. Think about a person who can help you understand your shadow self, acknowledge what you hear and ensure you don’t cross that line.