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Donkin on Work - Leadership

September 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 ideas.

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 unrealistically admiring.

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 behaviour.

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,” he writes.

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.

“Controlling personalities 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,” he writes.

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 positions.”

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 character faults.

“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,” he writes.

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.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved