2006 - Narcissism and why leaders love it
I have never been convinced
that the thirst for leadership books among aspiring
chief executives is sufficient to match the outflow
of titles from management publishers.
Yet up to the year 2000 there
seemed to be an almost insatiable urge among publishers
to add to what was an already overcrowded marketplace.
Then, in the first few years of the new century
it was as if someone had turned off a tap. The
flow slowed to a barely visible trickle.
Shorn of any timely instruction,
the world’s bosses must have been wringing
their hands in uncertainty, begging for more advice,
for this year the tap has been turned on once
more and the stream of new books is as powerful
as ever. If only I could say the same for their
While some have the odd nugget
of originality, most are peddling the same banal
messages. The result has been a descent in to
mediocrity, the very quality in leadership that
most of these books would seek to avoid. To say
that of every new leadership book, however, would
be to tar them all with the same brush and that
would be unfair.
One new book that deserves to
be elevated from the rest is The Leader on the
Couch, A clinical approach to changing people
and organisations, by Manfred Kets de Vries, director
of INSEAD’s Global Leadership centre.
As the subtitle suggests, this
is more than an advice book for chief executives.
Using his knowledge of psychology, Prof Kets de
Vries has drawn up a spectrum of personality traits
that emerge to varying degrees within leadership.
Sadly among the most common traits
he has found among leaders are those likely to
give board members, whose job is to regulate the
behaviour of chief executives, sleepless nights.
Controlling and antisocial behaviour are relatively
common as is a sense of paranoia. Most common
of all, however, is narcissism.
Fortunately the narcissistic
leader, to which Prof Kets de Vries devotes a
whole chapter, need not necessarily be a disaster
for a company. In fact he goes so far as to write:
“It’s generally agreed that a certain
degree of narcissistic behaviour is essential
for leadership success, a prerequisite for anyone
who hopes to rise to the top.”
Narcissism, he argues, is a constituent
of the human psyche. “Like all of us, leaders
occupy a position somewhere on the narcissistic
spectrum that ranges from healthy self-esteem
to pathological egotism.”
He makes the distinction, however,
between what he calls “constructive narcissists”
- those who have been reared by supporting parents
who do not overindulge their offspring - and “reactive
narcissists”. Reactive narcissism –
the worst sort – tends to be displayed,
he says, by those whose parents were distant or
cold or who, conversely, were overindulgent or
Sadly, all too many of these
people, have found their way in to leadership
positions, displaying an exaggerated sense of
self-importance and a need for admiration and
praise. Often they lack empathy for others.
It is for this reason that Prof
Kets de Vries has become a passionate supporter
of the need for empathy – fashionably described
as emotional intelligence – in those who
seek to lead organisations.
Funnily enough, there didn’t
seem much empathy on display among those intent
upon destabilising the leadership of the Labour
Party in the past few weeks. As the professor
writes, “Narcissistic leaders frequently
reveal a lack of conviction and a tendency to
resort to political expediency at the cost of
long-term goals.” I’m not sure that
comment could be applied to the Prime Minister,
Tony Blair. But it might well be attached to some
of his critics within the party.
Another problem for many of us,
apparently, when we become saddled with the wrong
type of leaders, is that too easily we allow ourselves
to mirror or even idealise their behaviour. When
this sort of relationship develops in a boardroom
it can prove corrosive.
“Given the number of grandiose,
vain, and greedy senior executives we have all
known, it’s clear that many boards of directors
haven’t been as effective as they could
have been,” writes Prof. Kets de Vries,
arguing that too often they fail to recognise
the danger signs associated with narcissistic
One way to avoid the worst excesses
of this kind of leadership, he says, is to install
mechanisms that allow for distributed decision-making,
such as detailing the roles of the chief executive
in relation to that of the chairman.
“Combining the roles of
CEO and chairman in one person is an invitation
to disaster. There are very few leaders who can
resist the siren call of this sort of power,”
If excessive narcissism isn’t
bad enough, choosing leaders doesn’t get
easier when you read what the author has to say
about controlling types. These are people who
are more comfortable with hierarchy, behaving
respectfully and deferentially towards their superiors
while, at the same time, demonstrating an uncompromising
and demanding attitude to their subordinates.
are often excessively devoted to their work and
productivity, to the exclusion of pleasure and
personal relationships. As workaholics, they sacrifice
their family and friends to their job. But hard
work isn’t necessarily smart work,”
Even today such enthusiasts
for diligence and hard work tend to attract admiration.
But some of their typical behaviours, such as
perfectionism and attention to detail can make
them poor at finishing projects. Nor are they
good at delegating because few others can measure
up to their own exacting standards. Surprisingly,
perhaps, this can manifest itself in indecisiveness.
Less surprising, therefore, is the author’s
conclusion that: “People dominated by such
characteristics are obviously unsuitable for leadership
It’s tempting to wonder
whether anyone out there is one hundred per cent
fitted for leadership. The answer is probably
“no”. As Prof Kets de Vries points
out, there is nothing unusual about bosses with
“The irony is that many
dysfunctional leaders mean well; they truly do.
But they’re psychologically illiterate,
as unaware of their strengths as they are of their
weaknesses. They don’t know how they act
or how they’re perceived, much less why,”
People who seek to lead, therefore,
must understand what he calls their “shadow
side”. Even then, it is not helpful to adjust
behaviour by assuming a stance or role as an actor
would. Instead he says that people in positions
of leadership must try to behave “authentically”,
honest to themselves and making the most of self-knowledge
that they might gain through the assistance, say,
of a coach.
Prof Kets de Vries has written
a big book about a big subject that explores and
explains the deeper motivations and behaviours
surrounding leadership. In spite of all the criticism
facing leaders in political and corporate life,
it is still possible to do the right thing. This
book shows us how.
*The Leader on the Couch, A clinical approach
to changing people and organisations, by Manfred Kets de
Vries, is published by Jossey-Bass, price £19.99.