Leadership Lessons from Narcissus
Date: April 2nd, 2012
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was admired and desired by all, especially himself. In fact, he was so beguiled by his own reflection in the water that he died of longing and turned into a flower. The myth has become a metaphor for the type of personality that is overly enamored with oneself, not to be confused with normal, healthy self-esteem or confidence. Those are good things. But, as is often the case, too much of a good thing can turn bad.
In its extreme, narcissism is a serious personality disorder like psychopathy. “In 1984, psychologist Robert Emmons posed the original narcissistic paradox: He noted that narcissists simultaneously devalue others even as they need others’ admiration. … It appears that narcissists seek out people who maintain their high positive self-image, at the same time intentionally avoiding and putting down people who may give them a harsh dose of realism.” Gosh, does this sound like some leaders that you know?
Also, like a lot of potentially bad things, a little bit can actually be healthy. A lot of creative people are a little bit “crazy.” Some scientists and engineers are a little bit “autistic.” Some narcissism can certainly be tolerated. Steve Jobs certainly had a little bit. Jack Welch had some (maybe a lot). They were certainly successful either because of or in spite of their egos. We can argue about whether those egos were inflated or not, but in less gifted leaders, narcissism can be toxic to the organization.
“Formally, narcissism can be defined as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance.” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Those with extreme narcissism are often very popular during the initial phases of a relationship but have little capacity to maintain relationships over time. They tend to dress well, are charming, talkative, informal, and generally present a very favorable first impression. That’s how they tend to acquire such powerful positions in many organizations. But, their need for admiration and adoration rapidly becomes tiresome. If the narcissist doesn’t get enough flattery, he or she will become defensive, vindictive, and manipulative. They are dangerous. They are highly skilled at discounting those who criticize them. Trying to give honest feedback to a narcissistic leader is often a career limiting (or ending) adventure.
Some of the traits we attribute to good leaders overlap with some of the traits of narcissism: confidence, assertiveness, extroversion, wit and so forth. So, it is sometimes hard to spot the true narcissist until it is too late. In a Psychology Today article, “How To Spot A Narcissist.”, several indicators are noted. “Flashy clothing and sky-high confidence are the “public” face of narcissism. Here are a few additional cues, some contradictory, in keeping with the narcissist’s paradoxical nature.
- Bragging about one’s perfect family (no one’s family is perfect).
- Hyper generosity. In public to demonstrate that one has power, but coldness once the camera is off.
- Hypersensitive and insecure. This includes imagining criticism where it doesn’t exist and getting depressed by perceived criticism.
- Vulnerable. Narcissists are self-centered and overly defensive.
- Prone to a vast array of negative emotions including depression, anxiety, self-consciousness, and owing to not being given their “due.” Such feelings can be an indication of egocentricity and self-absorption.
- Repeatedly puts down other people, especially inferiors and strangers. Loves to talk about him or herself and mentions others mainly to name-drop.”
One of the truly insidious aspects of narcissism is that leaders who have that trait tend to become more and more narcissistic as they gain more power. It is an unholy cycle. In extreme cases this takes the form of unethical behavior, secrecy, manipulation and so on. In organizations, the dilemma is often discovered too late to do much about it. Most experts advise taking preventive measures because once the person is in a position of power, it is extremely difficult to solve the problem.
Desperation or greed often compound the problem. Companies who think that they can make big, quick gains by hiring a highly charismatic, take-charge, miracle-worker, __________ (fill in the blank with all of the corporate, management happy-talk jargon words you can think of), are more likely to let themselves be taken in by the flashy interviewee.
Companies who have done their homework and created a strong, team-oriented culture will be more likely to be suspicious of the candidate who looks “too good.” You know, the one who is a little too quick to glad-hand, whose hand-shake is a little too firm, whose teeth are a little too straight and too white, whose suit is a little too well-tailored and whose résumé is just a little too perfect! Well, maybe he or she is, indeed, a little too “perfect.”
During the interview, be sure to ask what he or she has accomplished and listen to see if they talk about what the team contributed. Ask about leadership and see if they mentioned listening. Ask about their weaknesses and see if they mention traits that are really weaknesses rather than saying, “I’m too much of a perfectionist,” or “My standards are sometimes just too high.” See if they ask about your organization. Do they listen to you when you describe your organization’s needs? In short, is the interview about what is good for your organization or is it almost exclusively about them.
I was once a member of a team of professionals who were managed briefly (thank goodness) by one of these people. By all outward appearances, he was quite capable. He was sure of himself and talked the talk about teamwork, excellence and so forth. But, try to give him any feedback and you were immediately labeled a “troublemaker” and assigned to the most miserable tasks imaginable.
One such assignment involved coming in early and watching to see which supervisors came to work late and reporting them. We were frequently asked to spy on other departments to see if they were trying to “undermine” the boss’ authority. He frequently asked team members to work during evenings and weekends. If the team member was female, he would invent reasons for them to come to his house to “deliver documents” or pick up training materials, etc. On one such occasion, he was telling the female employee how smart and strong he was. To demonstrate, he took her hand and squeezed. Hard! In fact, he squeezed so hard that he broke her wrist. The company fired him. Better late than never! But, who knows how much damage and how long he would have survived if he had not crossed that line.
If your organization’s goals are truly about excellence, quality, service, and teamwork, be wary of those who seem too fixated on their own stuff. Make sure that your leadership training is focused on the kinds of skills that promote teamwork: listening, constructive confrontation, win/win conflict resolution, mutual problem solving and so forth. Hold your leaders accountable for practicing what they preach. If you hire executive coaches make sure that their coaching is a good fit with your corporate values.
Remember that powerful men and women often have a little Narcissism. But, you need to make it clear that self-promotion has its limits. Sure, everyone needs to “toot his or her own horn” once in a while. But, if you create a high performance culture in which teamwork is truly valued, excessive self-promotion will be seen for what it is and discounted.
Be aware of the deeper needs of the narcissistic leader when designing and facilitating leadership training. According to Michael Maccoby, they are:
- Overly sensitive to criticism. They don’t know how to deal with human emotions – their own or those around them. Teach them practical, meaningful ways to deal with emotions without feeling weak. They are probably (I don’t know of any specific research on this) low on measures of Emotional Intelligence.
- Poor listeners. Spend a lot of time teaching good listening skills. A heavy dose of Active Listening practice is a good idea for a lot of reasons but one thing it certainly does is make it a lot clearer how to understand another person’s point of view, a lesson that the narcissist desperately needs.
- Weak in empathy. Again Active Listening practice helps. Special projects where teamwork is essential are helpful. Make sure these projects are the kind where the only way to get recognition is through working successfully with a team.
- Resistant to coaching or mentoring. Choose their mentors and coaches very carefully. Remember that they can be very manipulative. A naïve coach can be fooled.
- Excessively competitive. Like many of the other traits, a little competitive spirit is a good thing. But, the narcissist will take it to the ridiculous extreme. Make sure that your leadership training emphasizes the company’s commitment to collaboration. Make sure that cooperation is a stated, measured, rewarded attribute during performance reviews.
So go ahead and give yourself a great big hug and a kiss. But, don’t take it too seriously. Remember that what you see is really just a reflection.
© 2012 William Stinnett, Ph.D., L.E.T. Master Trainer for Gordon Training International
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