What comes to mind when you think of great leaders? Visionary? Charismatic? Big personalities? Create transformative change? If that’s your picture of a great leader, then it involves narcissism.
Surprised? Have you always thought of narcissism as a purely negative trait? The best theorist of narcissism and leadership is probably Michael Maccoby. For a fuller description of narcissistic leadership, see his HBR article. In it, he argues that many larger-than-life business leaders have been narcissists – Jack Welch, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs. Narcissism can have downsides, but it has its upsides as well. And we all have some narcissistic qualities. What’s key is being what Maccoby calls a “productive” narcissist.
What’s Good About Narcissism?
Narcissists have many qualities that are highly valued in organizations:
- They have a big picture vision and the ability to articulate the vision in a compelling way.
- They have personal charm and charisma, and are able to attract and inspire followers.
- They have the desire to change the world and leave a legacy.
- They have the boldness to take risks and drive huge transformations.
What’s Bad About Narcissism?
Unchecked, the downsides of narcissism can outweigh the positives.
- They’re over-confident and they under-estimate risks. Their very real achievements can feed this over-confidence. But, they believe nothing bad can happen to them so they often take wild risks.
- They discount disconfirming feedback. If others express concerns that don’t fit with their vision or ideals for themselves, they will ignore those concerns, explain why others are wrong, or even become enraged.
- They’re competitive and distrustful of others. They perceive enemies where enemies may not exist, including among their co-workers. This can lead to isolation and guarded working relationships.
- In their focus on self, they are instrumental towards other people. They have great radar for identifying those who are their unconditional supporters and exploit those people.
- They don’t develop others. When they do mentor others, they want those others to be reflections of themselves.
- They resist self-insight and change. Their confidence is predicated on being flawless, so it’s hard for them to accept being flawed. And as long as they’re successful, they don’t think they have to change.
Not only do narcissists over-rate themselves, but co-workers over-rate the leadership ability of narcissists. A recent research study by Barbora Nevicka found that co-workers initially over-rate the effectiveness of narcissists, relative to their ensuing performance. What you actually may find in a narcissistic leader’s organizations includes…
- Co-workers disliking the leader – or at least not invested in the leader’s success.
- Lack of a strong pool of successors.
- Inhibited flow of information and creative ideas.
How Can You Minimize the Downsides and be a Productive Narcissist?
If you see any hint of yourself in this portrait, there is hope. The keys to productive narcissism are your ability to accept feedback and recognize your own limits.
- Find a trusted partner. This should be a person who gets your vision, brings complementary capabilities to your own, and from whom you are willing to hear disconfirming information. This person can be your reality check and help ensure your visions are executed. They can also help you notice your blind spots, and catch yourself when you’re falling into patterns around discounting feedback or ignoring risks.
- Focus on building your vision into the organization. You have a vision. Work on making it a shared vision and making it real. Embed your valuable ways of thinking into organizational practices.
- Get coaching or therapy. Narcissists aren’t inclined to be interested in self-awareness, and are hard to coach. But this kind of help can help you see your tendencies and get some distance from them, so that you can recognize your good and bad effects in the organization and become more intentional about your actions.
- Come out of the closet. Own up to your narcissistic tendencies and needs with others. This humility can go a long way to gain others’ support. Perhaps eventually you’ll even be able to laugh at yourself.
One caution: if you see narcissistic behaviors in a co-worker – resist the temptation to do armchair diagnosis, feel superior, or throw around labels or accusations. Use these ideas to become more empathetic, and remind yourself of how your own strengths also come wrapped up with weaknesses.