Leaders’ narcissism

Narcissism is an inescapable part of leadership, serving as both a blessing and a curse for leading personalities, says Haridimos Tsoukas, an organization studies professor at the Athens Laboratory of Business Administration (ALBA) and the University of Warwick in the UK. Tsoukas has written the preface to the book by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, titled «Prisoners of Leadership: The Paradox Aspects of Leadership Behavior» and published in Greece by Kastaniotis Publications last year. «Narcissistic corporate officials are usually presented as people with great potential, but as time goes by it becomes clear that they are missing something; things do not go well,» wrote de Vries. He added, «Although many of these executives can be efficient, most of the time they do not live up to their expectations, so problems eventually crop up.» De Vries, a professor at INSEAD business school near Paris, further notes that «having a constant need for other people’s admiration and creating relations in order to exploit others are not the only annoying aspects of their characters. It is equally annoying that the way they work is not always right. Their behavior gives the impression that they want to win the game using dubious means. Unfortunately, most of the time even they do not really know why they behave like that.» If narcissism does not stretch to pathological levels, it is an essential feature for anyone who wants to be a leader. But once it consumes a person, he or she becomes a failed leader, de Vries said. In the book’s preface, Tsoukas adds some examples from modern Greek politics, which show how complex a leader’s personality is. He informs readers that de Vries «cares to highlight the pathological aspect of leadership» and that «he wisely does not tell us how to become good leaders but how not to be bad ones.» Tsoukas explained to Kathimerini how narcissism can be both good and bad. «It is a blessing in its constructive form because it provides leaders with strong confidence, visionary orientation and boldness,» he said. «It is also a curse in its reactionary or delusional version, because it takes leaders to hubris, the manipulation of other people. This is a disease leaders have and de Vries helps us comprehend the psychological mechanisms through which it is created and with what consequences.» De Vries, who is also a psychoanalyst, described the categories of narcissistic behavior, referring first to reactionary narcissism. This type of narcissism usually develops in people who have failed to properly handle some disappointing experiences. These people «as children obtained a deficient and incomplete sense of identity and therefore were unable to maintain strong self confidence. In order to respond to those feelings they believed they were special.» He added that narcissism in such people who become leaders could have destructive effects. Another category the writer mentioned is the narcissism of delusion. «Delusional narcissists are much more accessible than reactionary ones. They do not exploit the people around them and are tolerant of opposing views,» wrote de Vries. Tsoukas explained that «delusional narcissists are anxious due to the ideal of perfection passed on to them by their parents. They seek rewards intensely, have an overvalued sense of themselves, and form unrealistic beliefs about the world, which create self-delusions and a sense of omnipotence.» He went on to suggest that «their behavior is dominated by a constant passion for the imaginary: They expect others to structure their lives in such a way as to be in harmony with their own difficulty to form their identity. Their feelings are superficial,» Tsoukas said. As an example he used Bernard Ebbers, the founder and president of WorldCom, which until recently was the second-largest telecommunications company in the US and crumbled in 2002 under the weight of scandals. ‘Textbook example’ «Ebbers is a poor kid from Mississippi determined to succeed,» Tsoukas said. «He created an enterprise, was initially successful, but this led him to acquire a feeling of omnipotence which he wanted to affirm with successive company acquisitions. He did so by gradually adopting problematic accounting methods and eventually resorting to fraud,» noted Tsoukas. «The way he was brought up by his parents, with the so-called values of the South, including religious faith, gave him an unassailable certainty that what he did was right. His charismatic character fascinated people around him so much that he was surrounded by people who told him only what he wanted to hear,» the Greek professor said. «This loss of contact with reality is the main characteristic of narcissists, and Ebbers is a textbook example. Confident that he was invincible and surrounded by flatterers, he continued his acquisitions and the suspicious accounting methods,» concluded Tsoukas. Today Ebbers is in prison serving a multi-year sentence. As de Vries wrote, his incentive for this book was a question he asked himself: «Why do some leaders change mysteriously after their ascent to leadership?» He also confessed his other motive was that «after returning to Europe from a long spell in North America I was impressed with the variety seen in the style of leadership.»