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Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons
by Michael Maccoby

Many leaders dominating business today have what psychoanalysts call a narcissistic personality. That’s good news for companies that need passion and daring to break new ground. But even productive narcissists can be dangerous for organizations. Here is some advice on avoiding the dangers.
When Michael Maccoby w rote this article, which was fir st pu blished in early 2000, th e bu siness w orld was still under th e spell of the Internet and its r ev olutionary prom ise. It w as a tim e, Maccoby w rote, th at called for larger-than-life leader s wh o cou ld see th e big picture and paint a com pelling portrait of a dr am atically different futu re. And that, he argu ed, w as one r eason w e saw the em ergence of th e superstar CEOs—the grandiose, activ ely self-pr om oting, and genuinely narcissistic leader s wh o dom inated the cov ers of business m agazines at that tim e. Skilled or ators and creativ e str ategists, narcissists hav e v ision and a great ability to attract and inspire follower s. The tim es hav e changed, and we’v e learned a lot about the dangers of ov erreliance on big personalities, but that doesn’t m ean nar cissism can’t be a useful leadership trait. There’s certainly a dar k side to nar cissism — narcissists, Freud told us, are em otionally isolated and h ighly distrustful. They ’re usu ally poor listener s and lack em pathy . Perceiv ed threats can tr igger rage. The challenge today —as Maccoby u nderstood it to be four y ears ago—is to take adv antage of th eir strength s wh ile tem pering their w eaknesses. Ther e’s som ething new and daring about th e CEOs w ho are transform ing today ’s indu stries. Ju st com pare them with th e executiv es who ran large com panies in th e 1 9 50s through the 1 980s. Those executiv es shunned the press and had their com m ents car efully cr afted by corporate PR departm ents. Bu t today ’s CEOs—su perstars such as Bill Gates, Andy Grov e, Stev e Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Jack Welch—h ire their own publicists, wr ite books, grant spontaneous inter v iew s, and activ ely prom ote their personal philosophies. Their faces adorn the cov ers of m agazines like BusinessWeek, Time, and th e Economist. Wh at’s m or e, th e world’s business personalities are increasingly seen as th e m aker s and shaper s of our public and per sonal agendas. They adv ise schools on w hat kids shou ld learn and lawm akers on how to inv est th e pu blic’s m oney . We look to them for th ough ts on ev ery thing from th e future of e-com m erce to hot places to v acation. Ther e ar e m any r easons today ’s bu siness leader s hav e h igher profiles than ev er before. One is that business play s a m uch bigger r ole in ou r liv es th an it used to, and its leaders are m ore often in the lim elight. Another is th at th e bu siness w orld is experiencing enorm ous changes that call for v isionar y and char ism atic leadership. But m y 25 y ears of consulting both as a psy choanaly st in priv ate practice and as an adv iser to top m anager s su ggest a th ird reason—nam ely , a pr onou nced ch ange in the personality of the strategic leaders at th e top. As an anth ropologist, I try to understand people in the context in w hich they oper ate, and as a psy choanaly st, I tend to see th em through a distinctly Freudian lens. Giv en w hat I know, I believ e that the larger-th an-life leaders w e are seeing today closely resem ble the personality ty pe that Sigm und Freud dubbed narcissistic. “People of this ty pe im press others as being ‘personalities,’” he wrote, describing one of the psy ch ological ty pes th at clearly fall within the range of norm ality . “They are especially suited to act as a suppor t for others, to take on the role of leader s, and to giv e a fr esh stim ulus to cultu ral dev elopm ent or dam age the established state of affairs.” Through out h istory , narcissists hav e alway s em erged to inspire people and to shape th e fu ture. Wh en m ilitary , religiou s, and political ar enas dom inated society , it was figures such as Napoléon Bonaparte,

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Mah atm a Gandh i, and Fr anklin Delano Roosev elt w ho deter m ined th e social agenda. But from tim e to tim e, wh en business becam e the engine of social cha nge, it, too, generated its shar e of narcissistic leaders. That was tru e at the beginning of this century , when m en like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thom as Edison, and Henr y Ford exploited new tech nologies and restr uctu red Am erican industry . And I think it is tru e again today . But Freu d recognized that there is a dark side to nar cissism . Nar cissists, h e pointed ou t, ar e em otionally isolated and h igh ly distru stful. Per ceiv ed threats can tr igger rage. Achiev em ents can feed feelings of grandiosity . That’s w hy Freud thought nar cissists w ere the hardest personality ty pes to analy ze. Consider how an execu tiv e at Oracle describes h is narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison: “ The difference between God and Larr y is that God does not believ e h e is Larr y .” That observ ation is am using, but it is also troubling. Not surprisingly , m ost people think of narcissists in a pr im arily negativ e way . After all, Freud nam ed the ty pe after the m y thical figure Narcissu s, wh o died becau se of his path ological preoccupation with h im self. Yet narcissism can be extr aordinar ily u sefu l—ev en necessar y . Fr eud shifted h is v iews abou t narcissism ov er tim e and recognized that we are all som ew hat narcissistic. More recently , psy choanaly st Heinz Kohut built on Freu d’s theor ies and dev eloped m ethods of treating narcissists. Of cou rse, only professional clinicians are trained to tell if narcissism is nor m al or pathological. In this article, I discuss the differences betw een productiv e and u nproductiv e narcissism but do not explore the extrem e path ology of borderline conditions and psy chosis. Leaders such as Jack Welch and George Sor os ar e exam ples of productiv e narcissists. They are gifted and creativ e strategists w ho see th e big picture and find m eaning in the r isky challenge of changing th e world and leav ing behind a legacy . Indeed, one reason we look to produ ctiv e narcissists in tim es of gr eat transition is that they hav e th e au dacity to push th rough th e m assiv e transform ations that society periodically u ndertakes. Produ ctiv e narcissists are not only risk takers w illing to get the job done but also char m er s wh o can conv er t the m asses with their rh etor ic. The danger is that nar cissism can turn unpr odu ctiv e wh en, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anch ors, nar cissists becom e u nrealistic dream er s. Th ey nurtu re grand sch em es and harbor the illusion that only circum stances or enem ies block their success. This tendency towar d gr andiosity and distrust is th e Achilles’ h eel of narcissists. Because of it, ev en brilliant narcissists can com e u nder suspicion for self-inv olv em ent, u npredictability , and—in extr em e cases—paranoia. It’s easy to see wh y narcissistic leadersh ip doesn’t alway s m ean successfu l leadersh ip. Consider the case of Volv o’s Pehr Gy llenham m ar. He h ad a dream that appealed to a broad international audience—a plan to rev olutionize the indu strial w orkplace by r eplacing the dehu m anizing assem bly line caricatur ed in Char lie Chaplin’s Modern Times. His wildly popular v ision called for team -based craftsm anship. Model factories wer e bu ilt and pu blicized to international acclaim . But his success in pushing thr ough these dram atic changes also sow ed the seeds for h is downfall. Gy llenham m ar started to feel that he could ignore the concerns of his operational m anagers. He pu rsu ed ch ancy and expensiv e business deals, wh ich he publicized on telev ision and in the press. On one lev el, y ou can ascribe Gy llenham m ar ’s falling out of touch with his workforce sim ply to faulty str ategy . Bu t it is also possible to attr ibute it to his nar cissistic personality . His ov erestim ation of him self led h im to believ e that oth ers w ould want h im to be the czar of a m ultinational enterprise. In tu rn, these fantasies led him to pursue a m erger with Renault, wh ich was trem endously unpopu lar with Swedish em ploy ees. Beca use Gy llenham m ar w as deaf to com plaints abou t Renault, Swedish m anagers w ere forced to take their case pu blic. In the end, shar eholders aggr essiv ely rejected Gy llenham m ar’s plan, leav ing him with no option but to resign. Giv en th e lar ge num ber of nar cissists at th e helm of cor porations today , the challenge facing organizations is to ensu re th at such leaders do not self-destruct or lead the com pany to disaster. That can take som e doing because it is v ery har d for nar cissists to work th rough th eir issues—and v irtu ally im possible for them to do it alone. Narcissists need colleagues and ev en th erapists if th ey h ope to br eak free from their lim ita tions. But because of th eir extrem e independence and self-protectiv eness, it is v ery difficult to get near th em . Kohu t m aintained that a ther apist wou ld h av e to dem onstrate an extraor dinarily profound em pathic understanding and sy m pathy for the narcissist’s feelings in order to gain his trust. On top of th at, narcissists m ust r ecognize that they can benefit from su ch h elp. For their par t, em ploy ees m ust learn h ow to recognize—and wor k ar ound—narcissistic bosses. To h elp them in this endeav or , let’s first take a closer look at Fr eud’s th eory of personality ty pes.

Three Main Personality Types
While Fr eud recognized th at th ere are an alm ost infinite v ar iety of personalities, he identified three m ain ty pes: er otic, obsessiv e, and narcissistic. Most of us h av e elem ents of all th ree. We are all, for exam ple, som ewhat narcissistic. If that were not so, w e w ould not be able to sur v iv e or asser t ou r needs. The point is,

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one of th e dy nam ic tendencies usu ally dom inates th e others, m aking each of u s react differ ently to success and failu re. Freu d’s definitions of personality ty pes differed ov er tim e. When talking abou t the erotic personality ty pe, how ev er , Freud gener ally did not m ean a sexual per sonality but rath er one for wh om lov ing and abov e all being lov ed is m ost im portant. This ty pe of indiv idu al is dependent on those people they fear w ill stop lov ing th em . Many er otics are teacher s, nu rses, and social w orkers. At th eir m ost productiv e, they are dev elopers of the y oung as well as enablers and helpers at work. As m anagers, they ar e car ing and supportiv e, but th ey av oid conflict and m ake people dependent on th em . They are, according to Freud, outer-dir ected people. Obsessiv es, in contrast, ar e inner-directed. They are self-reliant and conscientious. Th ey create and m aintain order and m ake the m ost effectiv e operational m anagers. They look constantly for w ay s to help people listen better, resolv e conflict, and find w in-w in opportunities. They bu y self-im prov em ent books such as Steph en Cov ey ’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Obsessiv es are also ruled by a strict conscience—they like to focus on continuou s im prov em ent at wor k becau se it fits in with th eir sense of m or al im prov em ent. As entrepreneurs, obsessiv es start businesses th at express th eir v alues, but th ey lack the v ision, daring, and ch arism a it takes to tur n a good idea into a gr eat one. The best obsessiv es set high standards and com m u nicate v ery effectiv ely . They m ake su re th at instr uctions are follow ed and costs are kept with in budget. The m ost productiv e are gr eat m entors and team play ers. Th e unproductiv e and th e uncooper ativ e becom e nar row experts and rule-bou nd bureaucrats. Narcissists, the th ird ty pe, are independent and not easily im pressed. Th ey ar e innov ators, driv en in business to gain power and glory . Produ ctiv e narcissists are experts in th eir industries, bu t they go bey ond it. They also pose the critical questions. They w ant to learn ev ery thing about ev ery th ing that affects th e com pany and its products. Unlike erotics, they want to be adm ir ed, not lov ed. And unlike obsessiv es, th ey are not troubled by a punishing su perego, so th ey ar e able to aggressiv ely pur sue their goals. Of all the personality ty pes, nar cissists r un the greatest r isk of isolating th em selv es at the m om ent of success. And because of th eir independence and aggr essiv eness, they are constantly looking ou t for enem ies, som etim es degenerating into par anoia wh en they are under extrem e stress. (For m ore on per sonality ty pes, see th e sidebar “ From m ’s Fou rth Personality Ty pe.”) Fr om m 's Fourth Per sonality Ty pe (Located at the end of th is ar ticle)

Strengths of the Narcissistic Leader
When it com es to leadersh ip, personality ty pe can be instructiv e. Erotic personalities generally m ake poor m anager s—th ey need too m uch approv al. Obsessiv es m a ke better leaders—th ey are y our operational m anager s: cr itical and cautiou s. But it is narcissists wh o com e closest to our collectiv e im age of great leaders. Ther e ar e two reasons for this: they hav e com pelling, ev en gripping, v isions for com panies, and they hav e an ability to attract follower s. Great Vision. I once asked a group of m anagers to define a leader. “A person with v ision” was a ty pical response. Productiv e narcissists understand the v ision th ing particularly w ell, because they are by natu re people who see the big pictur e. Th ey are not analy zers who can break u p big questions into m anageable pr oblem s; they aren’t num ber cruncher s eith er (these are usu ally the obsessiv es). Nor do th ey tr y to extr apolate to understand the fu tur e—th ey attem pt to create it. To par aph rase George Bernard Shaw , som e people see things as they ar e and ask wh y ; narcissists see things th at nev er wer e and ask wh y not. Consider the difference between Bob Allen, a pr oductiv e obsessiv e, and Mike Arm strong, a productiv e narcissist. In 1 99 7 , Allen tried to expand AT&T to r eestablish the end-to-end serv ice of the Bell Sy stem by reselling local ser v ice from the regional Bell operating com panies (RBOCs). Althou gh this w as a worthwh ile endeav or for shar eholders and custom ers, it was har dly earth -shatter ing. By contrast, through a str ategy of com bining v oice, telecom m unications, and Internet access by h igh-speed broadband telecom m unication ov er cable, Mike Arm strong has “cr eated a new space with his nam e on it,” as one of his colleagues puts it. Arm strong is betting that his costly strategy w ill beat out th e RBOC’s less expensiv e solution of digital subscriber lines ov er copper w ire. This exam ple illu strates the differ ent appr oach es of obsessiv es and narcissists. The risk Arm strong took is one that few obsessiv es w ould feel com for table taking. His v ision is galv anizing AT&T. Who bu t a narcissistic leader cou ld achiev e su ch a thing? As Napoléon—a classic narcissist—once rem arked, “Rev olutions are ideal tim es for soldier s with a lot of wit—and the cour age to act.”

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As in the day s of the French Rev olu tion, th e world is now changing in astounding way s; narcissists hav e opportunities they would nev er hav e in ordinar y tim es. In short, today ’s narcissistic leaders h av e the chance to change the v ery rules of the gam e. Consider Rober t B. Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto. Sh apiro described his v ision of genetically m odify ing cr ops as “th e single m ost successful introduction of technology in th e history of agricultu re, inclu ding the plow ” (New York Times, Augu st 5, 1 99 9). This is certainly a huge claim —ther e are still m any questions about th e safety and public acceptance of genetically engineer ed fr uits and v egetables. But indu stries like agr iculture are desperate for radical change. If Shapiro’s gam ble is su ccessful, the indu stry will be transform ed in th e im age of Monsanto. That’s w hy h e can get away with painting a pictu re of Monsanto as a h ighly pr ofitable “ life sciences” com pany —despite the fact that Monsanto’s stock has fallen 1 2 % fr om 1 998 to the end of the thir d qu arter of 1 999 . (During the sam e per iod, the S&P w as u p 4 1 %.) Unlike Arm strong and Sh apir o, it was enough for Bob Allen to w in against h is com petitors in a gam e m easured prim ar ily by th e stock m arket. But narcissistic leader s are after som ething m ore. Th ey w ant—and need—to leav e behind a legacy . Scores of Followers. Narcissists hav e v ision—but th at’s not enou gh. People in m ental hospitals also hav e v isions. Th e sim plest definition of a leader is som eone wh om other people follow. Indeed, narcissists are especially gifted in attracting followers, and m ore often th an not, they do so thr ough language. Narcissists believ e that words can m ov e m ountains and that inspiring speech es can ch ange people. Nar cissistic leaders are often skillful orators, and this is one of the talents th at m akes them so charism atic. Indeed, any one who has seen narcissists perfor m can attest to th eir personal m agnetism and their ability to stir enthusiasm am ong audiences. Yet this char ism atic gift is m ore of a tw o-w ay affair than m ost people think. Although it is not alway s obv ious, narcissistic leaders ar e qu ite dependent on their followers—they need affirm ation, and preferably adulation. Th ink of Winston Churchill’s wartim e br oadcasts or J.F.K.’s “Ask not w hat y our cou ntry can do for y ou” inau gur al address. Th e adulation that follows from such speeches bolster s the self-confidence and conv iction of the speakers. But if no one responds, th e narcissist u sually becom es insecure, ov er ly shrill, and insistent—just as Ross Perot did. Ev en wh en people respond positiv ely to a narcissist, there ar e danger s. Th at’s because charism a is a double-edged sword—it fosters both closeness and isolation. As he becom es incr easingly self-assu red, the narcissist becom es m ore spontaneous. He feels free of constraints. Ideas flow. He th inks he’s inv incible. This ener gy and confidence fur ther inspire his follow ers. But the v ery adu lation th at the narcissist dem ands can hav e a corrosiv e effect. As he expands, he listens ev en less to wor ds of cau tion and adv ice. After all, he has been righ t before, when others had their doubts. Rather than try to persu ade those wh o disagree with him , he feels justified in ignor ing them —cr eating fu rther isolation. The r esult is som etim es flagrant risk taking th at can lead to catastr ophe. In the political realm , th ere is no clearer exam ple of th is th an Bill Clinton.

Weaknesses of the Narcissistic Leader
Despite the w arm feelings their ch arism a can ev oke, narcissists are ty pically not com fortable w ith their own em otions. Th ey listen only for the kind of inform ation th ey seek. They don’t learn easily fr om others. They don’t like to teach bu t pr efer to indoctrinate and m ake speeches. Th ey dom inate m eetings with subordinates. The result for th e organization is greater inter nal com petitiv eness at a tim e when ev ery one is alr eady under as m uch pressure as they can possibly stand. Perhaps th e m ain problem is that th e narcissist’s faults tend to becom e ev en m or e pronou nced as h e becom es m ore successfu l. Sensitiv e to Criticism. Because they are extr aordinar ily sensitiv e, nar cissistic leaders shun em otions as a wh ole. Indeed, perhaps one of th e greatest par adoxes in th is age of team wor k and partnering is th at the best corporate leader in the contem porar y world is the ty pe of person w ho is em otionally isolated. Narcissistic leaders ty pically keep others at arm ’s length . Th ey can put u p a w all of defense as thick as the Pentagon. And giv en their difficulty with knowing or acknow ledging their own feelings, they ar e uncom fortable with oth er people expr essing th eirs—especially their negativ e feelings. Indeed, ev en productiv e narcissists are extr em ely sensitiv e to cr iticism or slights, which feel to them like kniv es th reatening th eir self-im age and th eir confidence in their v isions. Nar cissists are alm ost unim aginably th in-skinned. Like the fairy -tale princess who slept on m any m attr esses and y et knew sh e was sleeping on a pea, nar cissists—ev en pow erfu l CEOs—bru ise easily . Th is is one explanation w hy

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narcissistic leaders do not want to know wh at people think of them unless it is cau sing them a r eal problem . They cannot toler ate dissent. In fact, th ey can be extrem ely abrasiv e with em ploy ees who dou bt th em or with subordinates wh o are tou gh enough to figh t back. Stev e Jobs, for exam ple, pu blicly h um iliates subordinates. Thu s, althou gh narcissistic leaders often say that they want team w ork, what th at m eans in practice is th at th ey w ant a gr oup of y es-m en. As th e m ore independent-m inded play ers leav e or ar e push ed out, succession becom es a particular problem . Poor Listeners. One serious consequence of this ov ersensitiv ity to cr iticism is that narcissistic leaders often do not listen when they feel th reatened or attacked. Consider the response of one narcissistic CEO I had worked w ith for three y ears w ho asked m e to interv iew his im m ediate team and report back to him on what th ey w ere thinking. He inv ited m e to his sum m er hom e to discuss what I had found. “So what do they think of m e?” he asked with seem ing nonchalance. “They think y ou are v ery creativ e and cour ageous,” I told him , “but they also feel that y ou don’t listen.” “Excuse m e, wh at did y ou say ?” he sh ot back at once, pretending not to hear . His response was hu m or ous, but it was also tragic. In a v ery real way , th is CEO could not hear m y criticism because it w as too painfu l to toler ate. Som e narcissists ar e so defensiv e that th ey go so far as to m ake a v irtue of the fact th at they don’t listen. As another CEO bluntly put it, “I didn’t get here by listening to people!” Indeed, on one occasion w hen this CEO proposed a daring str ategy , none of his subordinates believ ed it w ould work. His subsequent su ccess strength ened his conv iction th at h e had nothing to lear n about strategy from his lieutenants. But success is no excu se for narcissistic leaders not to listen. Lack of Empathy. Best-selling business w riters today hav e taken u p th e slogan of “em otional com petencies”—the belief that successfu l leadership requ ires a str ongly dev eloped sense of em pathy . But alth ough th ey crav e em path y from oth ers, productiv e narcissists are not noted for being particular ly em pathetic th em selv es. Indeed, lack of em pathy is a character istic shor tcom ing of som e of th e m ost charism atic and su ccessful nar cissists, inclu ding Bill Gates and Andy Grov e. Of course, lea ders do need to com m unicate persu asiv ely . But a lack of em pathy did not prev ent som e of h istor y ’s greatest narcissistic leaders from know ing h ow to com m unicate —and inspire. Neither Chu rch ill, de Gaulle, Stalin, nor Mao Tse-tung wer e em pathetic. And y et they inspired people becau se of their passion and their conv iction at a tim e wh en people longed for certainty . In fact, in tim es of radical change, lack of em pathy can actu ally be a strength . A narcissist finds it easier than oth er personality ty pes to bu y and sell com panies, to close and m ov e facilities, and to lay off em ploy ees—decisions that inev itably m ake m any people angry and sad. But narcissistic leader s ty pically hav e few regrets. As one CEO say s, ”If I listened to m y em ploy ees’ needs and dem ands, they would eat m e aliv e.” Giv en th is lack of em path y , it’s hardly surprising th at narcissistic leader s don’t score particularly well on ev aluations of their interpersonal sty le. Wh at’s m or e, neither 3 6 0-degree ev aluations of th eir m anagem ent sty le nor worksh ops in listening w ill m ake them m ore em pathic. Narcissists don’t want to change—and as long as th ey are su ccessful, they don’t th ink they hav e to. Th ey m ay see th e need for oper ational m anagers to get touch y -feely training, but that’s not for them . Ther e is a kind of em otional intelligence associated w ith nar cissists, but it’s m ore street sm arts than em pathy . Narcissistic leaders are acutely awar e of w hether or not people are with them w holehear tedly . They know w hom they can use. Th ey can be br utally exploitativ e. That’s wh y , ev en though narcissists undoubtedly hav e “star quality ,” they are often unlikable. They easily stir u p people against them , and it is only in tum ultuous tim es, w hen their gifts ar e desper ately needed, that people are w illing to tolerate narcissists as leaders. Dist aste for Mentoring. Lack of em pathy and extr em e independence m ake it difficult for narcissists to m entor and be m entored. Generally speaking, narcissistic leader s set v ery little store by m entoring. Th ey seldom m entor oth ers, and when they do they ty pically w ant their protégés to be pale r eflections of them selv es. Ev en those narcissists like Jack Welch w ho are h eld u p as strong m entors a re u sually m ore interested in instructing than in coaching. Narcissists certainly don’t credit m entoring or educational progr am s for their ow n dev elopm ent as leaders. A few narcissistic leaders such as Bill Gates m ay find a friend or consultant—for instance, Warr en Buffet, a

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superproductiv e obsessiv e—wh om they can tru st to be their guide and confidant. But m ost nar cissists prefer “m entors” they can control. A 3 2-y ear-old m arketing v ice president, a nar cissist with CEO potential, told m e that she had rejected her boss as a m entor . As she put it, “First of all, I w ant to keep th e relationship at a distance. I don’t w ant to be influenced by em otions. Second, ther e are things I don’t want him to know. I’d r ather hire an outside consultant to be m y coach .” Although nar cissistic leaders appear to be at ease with others, they find intim acy —which is a pr erequisite for m entor ing—to be difficu lt. Younger narcissists will establish peer r elations with authority r ather than seek a parentlike m entoring relationship. They want r esults and ar e willing to take chances argu ing w ith auth ority . An Intense Desire t o Compete. Narcissistic leaders ar e relentless and r uth less in th eir pursu it of v ictory . Gam es are not gam es but tests of their sur v iv al skills. Of course, all successfu l m anagers want to w in, but narcissists ar e not restrained by conscience. Organizations led by narcissists are generally ch aracterized by intense internal com petition. Their passion to w in is m arked by both the prom ise of glory and the prim itiv e danger of extinction. It is a potent br ew that ener gizes com panies, creating a sense of ur gency , but it can also be dangerou s. Th ese leaders see ev ery thing as a thr eat. As Andy Grov e puts it, br illiantly articulating the narcissist’s fear, distr ust, and aggression, “ Only the par anoid su rv iv e.” The concern, of course, is that the narcissist finds enem ies that aren’t th ere—ev en am ong his colleagu es. Th e Rise and Fall of a Narcissist (Located at th e end of this article)

Avoiding the Traps
Ther e is v ery little bu siness literature that tells nar cissistic leaders h ow to av oid the pitfalls. There are two reasons for th is. First, relativ ely few narcissistic leaders are inter ested in looking inward. And second, psy choanaly sts don’t usually get close enou gh to them , especially in the w orkplace, to write about them . (The noted psy ch oanaly st Har ry Lev inson is an exception.) As a resu lt, adv ice on leadersh ip focuses on obsessiv es, w hich explains wh y so m uch of it is abou t creating team w ork and being m ore r eceptiv e to subordinates. But as w e’v e alr eady seen, th is literature is of little interest to narcissists, nor is it likely to help subordinates understand their narcissistic leaders. The absence of m anagerial literatu re on narcissistic leaders doesn’t m ean th at it is im possible to dev ise str ategies for dealing w ith narcissism . In the cour se of a long career cou nseling CEOs, I h av e identified thr ee basic way s in which pr oductiv e nar cissists can av oid the traps of their ow n personality . Find a t rust ed sidekick. Many narcissists can dev elop a close relationship with one person, a sidekick w ho acts as an anchor , keeping the narcissistic partner gr ounded. How ev er , giv en that narcissistic leaders tr ust only their ow n insights and v iew of r eality , th e sidekick has to understand the narcissistic leader and what he is tr y ing to achiev e. The nar cissist m u st feel th at this person, or in som e cases persons, is practically an extension of him self. The sidekick m ust also be sensitiv e enough to m anage th e relationship. Don Quixote is a classic exam ple of a narcissist wh o was ou t of touch with reality but wh o was constantly sav ed from disaster by his squir e Sancho Panza. Not surpr isingly , m any narcissistic leaders rely heav ily on their spou ses, the people th ey are closest to. But dependence on spouses can be risky , because they m ay furth er isolate the narcissistic leader from his com pany by su ppor ting his grandiosity and feeding his paranoia. I once knew a CEO in th is kind of relationship with his spouse. He took to accusing loy al subordinates of plotting a gainst him just because they v entured a few criticism s of h is ideas. It is m uch better for a nar cissistic leader to choose a colleagu e as his sidekick. Good sidekicks ar e able to point out the oper ational r equ irem ents of the narcissistic leader’s v ision and keep him rooted in reality . The best sidekicks are usu ally productiv e obsessiv es. Gy llenh am m ar , for instance, was m ost effectiv e a t Volv o wh en h e had an obsessiv e COO, Håkan Fr isinger, to focus on im prov ing quality and cost, as w ell a s an obsessiv e HR director, Berth Jönsson, to im plem ent h is v ision. Sim ilar ly , Bill Gates can think about the futu re fr om the stratosphere becau se Stev e Ballm er , a tough obsessiv e pr esident, keeps the show on the road. At Oracle, CEO Larr y Ellison can afford to m iss key m eetings and spend tim e on his boat contem plating a futu re w ithou t PCs because he has a pr oductiv e obsessiv e COO in Ray Lane to run the com pany for him . Bu t the job of sidekick entails m or e th an just execu ting the leader’s ideas. Th e sidekick also has to get his leader to accept new ideas. To do this, he m ust be able to show th e leader how the new ideas fit w ith his v iew s and ser v e h is interests. (For m or e on dealing w ith nar cissistic bosses, see the sidebar “Working for a Narcissist.”) Working for a Narcissist (Located at the end of this article)

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Indoctrinat e the organizat ion.

Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros,…

The narcissistic CEO w ants all his subordinates to th ink the way he does abou t the business. Pr oductiv e narcissists—people wh o often h av e a dash of the obsessiv e per sonality —ar e good at conv erting people to their point of v iew . One of the m ost successful at this is GE’s Jack Welch. Welch uses tough ness to bu ild a corporate culture and to im plem ent a daring bu siness strategy , inclu ding the buy ing and selling of scor es of com panies. Unlike other nar cissistic leaders such as Gates, Grov e, and Ellison, w ho h av e transfor m ed indu stries with new produ cts, Welch w as able to tra nsform h is industry by focusing on execution and push ing com panies to the lim its of quality and efficiency , bu m ping u p rev enu es and w ringing out costs. In order to do so, Welch h am m er s out a hu ge corporate culture in h is ow n im age—a cultu re th at prov ides im pr essiv e rewar ds for senior m anager s and sh areh olders. Welch’s appr oach to cultu re bu ilding is widely m isu nderstood. Many observ er s, notably Noel Tichy in The Leadership Engine, argue that Welch form s his com pany ’s leader ship culture throu gh teaching. Bu t Welch’s “ teaching” inv olv es a personal ideology tha t he indoctrinates into GE m anagers th rou gh speech es, m em os, and confr ontations. Rather than cr eate a dialogue, Welch m akes pronouncem ents (either be th e num ber one or tw o com pany in y our m arket or get out), and he institutes program s (such as Six Sigm a quality ) that becom e the GE party line. Welch’s strategy has been extrem ely effectiv e. GE m anagers m ust either internalize his v ision, or they m ust leav e. Clearly , th is is incentiv e learning with a v engeance. I wou ld ev en go so far as to call Welch’s teach ing brainwashing. Bu t Welch does hav e th e rare insigh t and know -how to achiev e what all narcissistic business leaders are tr y ing to do—nam ely , get th e or ganization to identify with them , to think the way they do, and to becom e the liv ing em bodim ent of their com panies. Get into analysis. Narcissists ar e often m ore interested in controlling others th an in knowing and disciplining th em selv es. That’s w hy , w ith v ery few exceptions, ev en productiv e narcissists do not want to explore their personalities with the help of insigh t th erapies such as psy ch oanaly sis. Yet since Heinz Koh ut, there has been a r adical shift in psy ch oanaly tic th inking about what can be done to h elp narcissists w ork throu gh their rage, alienation, and grandiosity . Indeed, if they can be persu aded to u ndergo therapy , nar cissistic leaders can use tools such as psy ch oanaly sis to ov er com e v ital character flaw s. Consider the case of one exceptional narcissistic CEO wh o asked m e to help him understand wh y he so often lost h is tem per w ith subor dinates. He liv ed far from m y hom e city , and so the therapy was sporadic and v ery unorthodox. Yet he kept a jou rnal of h is dr eam s, w hich we inter preted togeth er either by phone or when we m et. Ou r analy sis uncov ered painful feelings of being u nappreciated that went back to his inability to im press a cold fath er. He cam e to realize that he dem anded an unreasonable am ou nt of praise and that when he felt unappreciated by his subordin ates, he becam e furious. Once he understood th at, he was able to recognize his narcissism and ev en laugh about it. In the m iddle of our work, he ev en announced to his top team th at I was psy choanaly zing him and asked th em what they th ough t of that. After a pregnant pau se, one execu tiv e v ice president piped up, “ Wh atev er y ou’re doing, y ou should keep doing it, because y ou don’t get so angry any m or e.” Instead of being tr apped by narcissistic rage, th is CEO w as learning how to express his concer ns constr uctiv ely . Leaders w ho can work on them selv es in that way tend to be the m ost productiv e narcissists. In addition to being self-reflectiv e, they are also likely to be open, likable, and good-hum ored. Pr oductiv e nar cissists h av e perspectiv e; they are able to detach them selv es and lau gh at their ir rational needs. Althou gh serious about achiev ing th eir goals, they ar e also play ful. As leaders, they are aware of being perfor m er s. A sense of hum or h elps them m aintain enough perspectiv e and hu m ility to keep on lear ning.

The Best and Worst of T imes
As I hav e pointed out, nar cissists th riv e in chaotic tim es. In m ore tranqu il tim es and places, howev er, ev en the m ost brilliant nar cissist w ill seem out of place. In his short story The Curfew Tolls, Stephen Vincent Benét speculates on w hat wou ld hav e h appened to Napoléon if he had been born som e 3 0 y ears earlier. Retir ed in prerev olutionar y Fr ance, Napoléon is depicted as a lonely artillery m ajor boasting to a v acationing British gener al about how he could hav e beaten the English in India. The point, of cou rse, is that a v isionary born in th e w rong tim e can seem like a pom pou s buffoon. Historically , narcissists in large corpor ations hav e been confined to sales positions, wh ere they use their persuasiv eness and im agination to best effect. In settled tim es, th e pr oblem atic side of the narcissistic personality u sually conspires to keep narcissists in their place, and th ey can ty pically rise to top m anagem ent positions only by starting their ow n com panies or by leav ing to lead upstarts. Consider Joe

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Nacchio, form erly in char ge of both th e bu siness and consum er div isions of AT&T. Nacchio was a supersalesm an and a popu lar leader in the m id-1 99 0s. But h is desire to create a new netw ork for bu siness custom er s was th war ted by colleagues who found him abrasiv e, self-prom oting, and r uthlessly am bitious. Two y ear s ago, Nacch io left AT&T to becom e CEO of Qwest, a com pany th at is creating a long-distance fiber -optic cable netw ork. Nacchio had the credibility —and char ism a—to sell Qwest’s initial pu blic offer ing to financial m arkets and gain a high v aluation. Within a sh ort space of tim e, he turned Qw est into an attractiv e target for the RBOCs, w hich wer e looking to m ov e into long-distance teleph ony and Inter net serv ices. Such a sale w ould hav e giv en Qwest’s owners a handsom e profit on their inv estm ent. But Nacchio wanted m ore. He wanted to expand—to com pete with AT&T—and for that he needed local serv ice. Rather than sell Qwest, h e ch ose to m ake a bid him self for local telephone operator U.S. West, using Qw est’s highly v alu ed stock to finance th e deal. Th e m arket v oted on th is display of expansiv eness with its feet—Qw est’s stock price fell 40% between last Ju ne, when he m ade th e deal, and the end of the thir d qu arter of 1 999 . (The S&P index dropped 5.7 % during th e sam e period.) Like other narcissists, Nacchio likes risk—and som etim es ignores the costs. Bu t with th e dr am atic discontinuities going on in the wor ld today , m ore and m ore large cor porations are getting into bed with narcissists. They are finding th at there is no substitute for narcissistic leaders in an age of innov ation. Com panies need leaders w ho do not try to anticipate the futu re so m u ch as create it. But narcissistic leaders—ev en the m ost pr oductiv e of th em —can self-destruct and lead their or ganizations terribly astra y . For com panies wh ose narcissistic leaders recognize their lim itations, these will be the best of tim es. For other com panies, these cou ld turn out to be the worst.

Fromm's Fourth Personality Type

Not long after Freud descr ibed his three per sonality ty pes in 1 93 1 , psy ch oanaly st Erich Fr om m pr oposed a four th personality ty pe, w hich has becom e particularly prev alent in today ’s serv ice econom y . From m called th is ty pe th e “m arketing personality ,” and it is exem plified by the lead character in Woody Allen’s m ov ie Zelig, a m an so gov erned by his need to be v alued that he becom es exactly like the people he happens to be around. Mar keting personalities ar e m ore detached than erotics and so ar e less likely to cem ent close ties. They are also less driv en by conscience than obsessiv es. Instead, they are m otiv ated by a radarlike anxiety that perm eates ev ery thing they do. Because they ar e so eager to please and to allev iate this anxiety , m arketing personalities excel at selling th em selv es to others. Unprodu ctiv e m arketing ty pes lack dir ection and th e ability to com m it them selv es to people or projects. But when productiv e, m arketing ty pes are good at facilitating team s and keeping the focu s on adding v alu e as defined by cu stom ers and colleagu es. Like obsessiv es, m arketing personalities are av id consum ers of self-help books. Like nar cissists, they are not w edded to the past. Bu t m arketing ty pes generally m ake poor leaders in tim es of crisis. They lack the dar ing needed to innov ate and ar e too responsiv e to cu rrent, rath er th an futur e, cu stom er dem ands.

The Rise and Fall of a Narcissist

The story of Jan Carlzon, the form er CEO of the Scandinav ian airline SAS, is an alm ost textbook exam ple of how a narcissist’s weaknesses can cut short a br illiant career . In the 1 980s, Carlzon’s v ision of SAS as th e businessperson’s airline w as w idely acclaim ed in th e bu siness press; m anagem ent gur u Tom Peters described him as a m odel leader. In 1 989, w hen I fir st m et Carlzon and his m anagem ent team , he com pared the ideal or ganization to the Brazilian soccer team —in principle, th ere w ould be no fixed roles, only innov ativ e play s. I asked the m em ber s of the m anagem ent team if they agreed w ith this v ision of an em power ed fr ont line. One v ice president, a form er pilot, answer ed no. “ I still believ e that the best organization is th e m ilitar y ,” he said. I then asked Carlzon for his reaction to that rem ark. “Well,” he replied, “ that m ay be true, if y our goal is to shoot y our custom er s.”

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That rejoinder was both w itty and dism issiv e; clear ly , Carlzon w as not engaging in a serious dialogue w ith his subor dinates. Nor was he listening to other adv isers. Car lzon ignored the issue of h igh costs, ev en wh en m any observ ers pointed out th at SAS could not com pete with out im prov ing produ ctiv ity . He threw m oney at expensiv e acqu isitions of hotels and m ade an unnecessary inv estm ent in Continental Airlines ju st m onths befor e it declared bankruptcy . Carlzon’s stor y perfectly corroborates the often-recorded tendency of narcissists to becom e ov er ly expansiv e —and hence isolated—at th e v ery pinnacle of th eir success. Seduced by th e flattery he receiv ed in the inter national press, Carlzon’s self-im age becam e so enor m ou sly inflated that h is feet left th e gr ound. And giv en his v ulnerability to grandiosity , he w as propelled by a need to expand h is or ganization r ather than dev elop it. In due cour se, as Carlzon led the com pany deeper and deeper into losses, he was fired. Now he is a v entur e capitalist h elping bu dding com panies. And SAS has lost its glitter.

Working for a Narcissist

Dealing w ith a narcissistic boss isn’t easy . You h av e to be prepared to look for another job if y ou r boss becom es too narcissistic to let y ou disagree with him . Bu t rem em ber that the com pany is ty pically betting on h is v ision of th e future—not y ou rs. Here are a few tips on how to su rv iv e in the shor t ter m : • Always empathize w ith your boss’s feelings, but don’t expect any empathy back. Look elsew her e for y ou r own self-esteem . Understand that behind h is display of infallibility , there hides a deep v ulnerability . Pr aise his achiev em ents and reinforce his best im pulses, bu t don’t be sh am elessly sy coph antic. An intelligent narcissist can see through flatterer s and pr efers independent people w ho truly appreciate h im . Show th at y ou will protect h is im age, inside and outside th e com pany . But be carefu l if h e asks for an honest ev aluation. What he w ants is infor m ation that will help him solv e a problem abou t his im age. He w ill resent any honesty th at th reatens his inflated self-im age and will likely r etaliate. • Give your boss ideas, but alw ays let him take the credit for them. Find ou t wh at h e th inks before presenting y our v iew s. If y ou believ e h e is w rong, sh ow how a different approach would be in h is best inter est. Take his par anoid v iews seriou sly , don’t br ush them aside—they often rev eal shar p intuitions. Disagree only wh en y ou can dem onstrate h ow h e w ill benefit from a different point of v iew . • Hone your time-management skills. Narcissistic leader s often giv e subor dinates m any m ore order s th an they can possibly execute. Ignore the r equests h e m akes that don’t m ake sense. Forget abou t th em . He w ill. But be carefu l: carv e out free tim e for y our self only when y ou know there’s a lull in th e boss’s schedule. Narcissistic leaders feel free to call y ou at any h our of th e day or nigh t. Make y our self av ailable, or be prepared to get ou t. Copy righ t © 2003 Harv ard Business School Pu blish ing Corporation. All r ights reserv ed. Michael Maccoby is an anthr opologist and a psy ch oanaly st. He is also th e founder and president of the Maccoby Grou p, a m anagem ent consultancy in Wash ington, DC, and was form erly director of th e Pr ogram on Technology , Pu blic Policy , and Hum an Dev elopm ent at Harv ard Univ ersity ’s Kennedy Sch ool of Gov ernm ent in Cam bridge, Massach usetts. This article was the basis for the book The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership (Broadw ay Books, 2003 ).

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