Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons

6/12/2000
Today's business leaders maintain a markedly higher profile than did their predecessors of previous generations.  A growing need for visionary and charismatic leadership has brought to the fore executives of a personality type psychologists call "narcissistic." That is both good and bad news, says psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and consultant Michael Maccoby.  In this excerpt from his article in the Harvard Business Review, he tells how productive narcissistic leaders can avoid the pitfalls and make the most of their personalities.

Narcissistic Leaders

There is very little business literature that tells narcissistic leaders how to avoid the pitfalls. There are two reasons for this. First, relatively few narcissistic leaders are interested in looking inward. And second, psychoanalysts don't usually get close enough to them, especially in the workplace, to write about them. (The noted psychoanalyst Harry Levinson is an exception.) As a result, advice on leadership focuses on obsessives, which explains why so much of it is about creating teamwork and being more receptive to subordinates. But as we've already seen, this literature is of little interest to narcissists, nor is it likely to help subordinates understand their narcissistic leaders. The absence of managerial literature on narcissistic leaders doesn't mean that it is impossible to devise strategies for dealing with narcissism. In the course of a long career counseling CEOs, I have identified three basic ways in which productive narcissists can avoid the traps of their own personality.

Find a trusted sidekick. Many narcissists can develop a close relationship with one person, a sidekick who acts as an anchor, keeping the narcissistic partner grounded. However, given that narcissistic leaders trust only their own insights and view of reality, the sidekick has to understand the narcissistic leader and what he is trying to achieve. The narcissist must feel that this person, or in some cases persons, is practically an extension of himself. The sidekick must also be sensitive enough to manage the relationship. Don Quixote is a classic example of a narcissist who was out of touch with reality but who was constantly saved from disaster by his squire Sancho Panza. Not surprisingly, many narcissistic leaders rely heavily on their spouses, the people they are closest to. But dependence on spouses can be risky, because they may further isolate the narcissistic leader from his company by supporting his grandiosity and feeding his paranoia. I once knew a CEO in this kind of relationship with his spouse. He took to accusing loyal subordinates of plotting against him just because they ventured a few criticisms of his ideas.

It is much better for a narcissistic leader to choose a colleague as his sidekick. Good sidekicks are able to point out the operational requirements of the narcissistic leader's vision and keep him rooted in reality. The best sidekicks are usually productive obsessives. Gyllenhammar, for instance, was most effective at Volvo when he had an obsessive COO, Håkan Frisinger, to focus on improving quality and cost, as well as an obsessive HR director, Berth Jönsson, to implement his vision. Similarly, Bill Gates can think about the future from the stratosphere because Steve Ballmer, a tough obsessive president, keeps the show on the road. At Oracle, CEO Larry Ellison can afford to miss key meetings and spend time on his boat contemplating a future without PCs because he has a productive obsessive COO in Ray Lane to run the company for him. But the job of sidekick entails more than just executing the leader's ideas. The sidekick also has to get his leader to accept new ideas. To do this, he must be able to show the leader how the new ideas fit with his views and serve his interests.

Indoctrinate the organization. The narcissistic CEO wants all his subordinates to think the way he does about the business. Productive narcissists—people who often have a dash of the obsessive personality—are good at converting people to their point of view. One of the most successful at this is GE's Jack Welch. Welch uses toughness to build a corporate culture and to implement a daring business strategy, including the buying and selling of scores of companies. Unlike other narcissistic leaders such as Gates, Grove, and Ellison, who have transformed industries with new products, Welch was able to transform his industry by focusing on execution and pushing companies to the limits of quality and efficiency, bumping up revenues and wringing out costs. In order to do so, Welch hammers out a huge corporate culture in his own image—a culture that provides impressive rewards for senior managers and shareholders.

Welch's approach to culture building is widely misunderstood. Many observers, notably Noel Tichy in The Leadership Engine, argue that Welch forms his company's leadership culture through teaching. But Welch's "teaching" involves a personal ideology that he indoctrinates into GE managers through speeches, memos, and confrontations. Rather than create a dialogue, Welch makes pronouncements (either be the number one or two company in your market or get out), and he institutes programs (such as Six Sigma quality) that become the GE party line. Welch's strategy has been extremely effective. GE managers must either internalize his vision, or they must leave. Clearly, this is incentive learning with a vengeance. I would even go so far as to call Welch's teaching brainwashing. But Welch does have the rare insight and know-how to achieve what all narcissistic business leaders are trying to do—namely, get the organization to identify with them, to think the way they do, and to become the living embodiment of their companies.

Get into analysis. Narcissists are often more interested in controlling others than in knowing and disciplining themselves. That's why, with very few exceptions, even productive narcissists do not want to explore their personalities with the help of insight therapies such as psychoanalysis. Yet since Heinz Kohut, there has been a radical shift in psychoanalytic thinking about what can be done to help narcissists work through their rage, alienation, and grandiosity. Indeed, if they can be persuaded to undergo therapy, narcissistic leaders can use tools such as psychoanalysis to overcome vital character flaws.

Consider the case of one exceptional narcissistic CEO who asked me to help him understand why he so often lost his temper with subordinates. He lived far from my home city, and so the therapy was sporadic and very unorthodox. Yet he kept a journal of his dreams, which we interpreted together either by phone or when we met. Our analysis uncovered painful feelings of being unappreciated that went back to his inability to impress a cold father. He came to realize that he demanded an unreasonable amount of praise and that when he felt unappreciated by his subordinates, he became furious. Once he understood that, he was able to recognize his narcissism and even laugh about it. In the middle of our work, he even announced to his top team that I was psychoanalyzing him and asked them what they thought of that. After a pregnant pause, one executive vice president piped up, "Whatever you're doing, you should keep doing it, because you don't get so angry anymore." Instead of being trapped by narcissistic rage, this CEO was learning how to express his concerns constructively.

Leaders who can work on themselves in that way tend to be the most productive narcissists. In addition to being self-reflective, they are also likely to be open, likable, and good-humored. Productive narcissists have perspective; they are able to detach themselves and laugh at their irrational needs. Although serious about achieving their goals, they are also playful. As leaders, they are aware of being performers. A sense of humor helps them maintain enough perspective and humility to keep on learning.

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Excerpted from the article "Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons" in the Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000.

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Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and a psychoanalyst. He is also the founder and president of the Maccoby Group, a management consultancy in Wahsington, DC. The former director of the Program on Technology, Public Policy, and Human Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Maccoby is the author of The Leader: A New Face for American Management (Simon and Schuster, 1981), The Gamesmen: The New Corporate Leaders(Simon & Schuster, 1977), and Why Work? Motivating the New Workforce (Second Edition, Miles River Press, 1995).

The Narcissistic Personality

Narcissists, one of three personality types identified by Sigmund Freud, have often emerged to lead and inspire people in the military, religious and political arenas, says Michael Maccoby. Business, too, has had its share of narcissistic leaders, especially at times, like the early 20th century, "when business became the engine of social change...[and] men like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford exploited new technologies and restructured American industry."

The period from the 1950s through the 1980s, by contrast, was characterized by business leaders who shunned the limelight. Only recently have narcissistic leaders—the likes of Microsoft's Bill Gates, Intel's Andy Grove, Apple's Steve Jobs, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and GE's Jack Welch—taken their place again as the leaders of large corporations and familiar faces on the nation's stage.

Narcissists bring plusses and minuses to their roles as leaders, says Maccoby. On the plus side, they bring great vision, an ability to see the big picture and, as a result, the opportunity to change the very rules of the game. They are also especially gifted in attracting followers, usually through skillful use of language, though charisma, adds Maccoby, is a double-edged sword. On the minus side, narcissistic leaders can be poor listeners, sensitive to criticism, lacking in empathy and "relentless and ruthless in their pursuit of victory."

To make the most of who they are—and to be productive leaders, says Maccoby,—narcissists must recognize their potential shortcomings and work to avoid the traps of their own personalities.