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Narcissists - can't work with them, can't work without them

We are ever more interested in executives responsible for leading major companies and organisations.

Churchill with Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta

We are interested in those who provide leadership. We ask questions about the ability and experience of football manager. Commentators speculate on the capability of politicians who claim to be able to better govern the country.

Though not exactly new, we are ever more interested in executives responsible for leading major companies and organisations.

Given we live in a so called share-owning democracy – and especially those who are depending on annuities for a decent standard of living in retirement – there is much closer examination of the strategic decisions made by such executives.

However, we might more importantly ask what is their personality and in whose interest they are working?

History is replete with leaders who are remembered for their ‘derring do’ and ability to think adventurously in times of crisis.

Probably the best-known examples of the last couple of generations are world-war two British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the charismatic if somewhat flawed American President John F. Kennedy, and Margaret Thatcher.

It seems that we want our leaders to be confident and to possess the sort of self-belief that marks them out as being special.

One of the criticisms made of Mrs Thatchers’ successor, the thoroughly decent man John Major, was that he was too ordinary.

But as we know, there is a fine line between possessing self-confidence and outright arrogance which causes them to increasingly believe that they infallible.

Examples of individuals whose hubris led to catastrophic consequences for all concerned are sadly all-too abundant. A good example was the megalomaniac and fraudster Robert Maxwell. He bullied staff and his own sons mercilessly and was never exposed – though some hinted at his behaviour – because he threatened to sue.

Self-belief is probably essential in becoming a senior manager. In that sense the overwhelming majority of senior managers must possess what is known as a narcissistic personality.

Narcissism defined as consisting of a personality trait in which the person affected is only interested in themselves; others are not just secondary but irrelevant. Typically a narcissist will display extreme arrogance coupled with a lust for power and ability to dominate others.

Interestingly, according to experts, narcissism may be either good (productive) or bad in that their personality causes them to become destructive.

Leadership writer and psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby has written a book The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership (published by Broadway Books, 2003) in which he examines the difference between those whose contribution and influence is positive and those whose presence becomes malign.

Maccoby argues that in an increasingly competitive environment have someone with vision and willingness to take risk may be entirely sensible. After all, if you are seen to be ‘behind the game’ in terms of innovation no-one will want what you have on offer.

According to Maccoby a productive narcissist is someone who is perceived as having incredible competence and enthusiasm.

They will be extremely good at dealing with the politics of the organisation through their charm.

Additionally, he believes, they will be seen to have a level of intellect that enables them to process complicated or incomplete information quickly and to make decisions that the majority would find utterly daunting. Though Maccoby acknowledges that a productive narcissist will also have a tendency to be over-sensitive to criticism and may be seen to be overly obsessed with position, power and their status, their ability to do what others find very difficult will engender support by “drawing people into their vision, and produce a cohort of disciples who will pursue the dream for all it’s worth.”

‘Productive narcissists’ are good. The problem is that the very things that make them a good leader can, if taken to extremes, make them destructive.

The list of characteristics of those who are ‘destructive narcissists’ makes them seem thoroughly awful people, though in public they may appear like decent and caring people.

Extreme narcissists are often disdainful and patronising to others who work with them; especially subordinates. They are frequently outrageously boastful and will compare themselves favourably to heroes or, for example, noted geniuses. They demand attention and unquestioning love and will believe that the world revolves around them. In private, at least, they will be prone to emotional outbursts and will intimidate to get their way.

It is believed that narcissism evolves as a consequence of not being loved as a child and that their ego is a way to create a world in which their power and position provides achievement.

They will increasingly lose their connection with reality and will not want to relinquish this ‘drug’.

Robert Maxwell was famously vain and coloured his hair lest he be seen to be physically growing old.

Notably they are not truly team-orientated and will take credit for any success but avoid blame by arguing it was the fault of others. They will pride themselves on being incredibly industrious but see the others’ input as less worthy and inferior. As well as losing valuable staff because of their behaviour, extreme narcissists cannot contemplate that any other person could ever replace them.

An extreme narcissist is absolutely ruthless and has no empathy for others or any conscience.

Indeed, it is suggested that some become sociopath or possible psychopathic.

Such narcissism leads an individual to disregard the opinions and advice of others and those afflicted will, in their desire to propagate their increasingly grandiose beliefs, take draconian measures to remain in control.

Unbelievers are condemned, excluded or in the cases of dictators executed under trumped up allegations.

The much parodied the scene of Hitler in his bunker in the film Downfall shows him surrounded by obsequious generals afraid to tell him that he is surrounded and that his dream of The Third Reich is over.

It is believed that an extreme narcissist would rather have notoriety and possible infamy rather than simply do what is in everyone’s best interest and which might deprive them of the adulation or fear they engender.

In a world in which the quest for ultimate success is the goal, there is an increasing culture of tolerating, if not encouraging, risk-taking by leaders.

If success is the end result everyone potentially benefits.

However, the global financial crisis was largely caused by the behaviour of those whose narcissism meant they believed they could beat the system.

In retrospect their schemes seem audacious – if not plain ludicrous. Many, including jailed investment advisor and financier Bernie Madoff, were quite simply fraudulent.

As the business world returns to normality we may forget the breathtaking behaviour of such extreme narcissists.

Whilst there is every reason to procure the services of executives with proven success, and these people don’t come cheap, remember that if they promise to transform your organisation and ‘guarantee’ you success, giving them control may be inherently risky.

In the latest edition of The Harvard Business Review distinguished academic Manfred Kets de Vries, the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Clinical Professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD writes about the way he approaches the problem of leaders in organisations who are ‘toxic’. Significantly he includes those who display narcissistic tendencies.

As de Vries accepts, there is a need to ensure that such people are coached to recognise the damaging effect they have on others which, of course, is far from easy.

However, to do nothing and simply hope for the best is not wise.

Like drug users in search of the next ‘high’ narcissists may increasingly engage in behaviour evermore extreme.

They will purport to deliver strategies that promise much for all but, potentially, could simply be destructive. The result for the organisation will be untold misery.

Then again, we do need narcissistic leaders – but their work should be constantly monitored and action taken to stop them becoming extreme.

* Dr Steven McCabe is director of research degrees for Birmingham City Business School

 

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