“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change” – Frank Lloyd Wright
“Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” – Sigmund Freud
Several studies have demonstrated that a combination of humility and ambition is consistently found in leaders at the top of organizations experiencing sustainable success. However, the evidence shows that most organizations today are lead by leaders with strong narcissistic traits and some of them, even though successful at first, are paying a heavy price for it.
Narcissistic and arrogant leaders have the capacity to impress the CEO and the Management Board, they are visible, they are convincing and usually end up being appointed to the top jobs. As highlighted by Jim Collins, ‘… boards of directors frequently operate under the false belief that a larger than life, egocentric leader is required to make a company great…’. More humble leaders tend to be discarded for these leading roles because they are usually not hungry enough to get them but also and more often because the unconscious impact of narcissistic leaders on decision makers is such that it usually hides their derailers.
The paradox is that the traditional command and control model that made a lot of big multinational companies so successful seems to be less and less relevant in today’s world. The quantity of information available and the pressure to make fast decisions is forcing organizations and their top leaders to adopt a more bottom-up mindset and is clearly building a stronger case for more humility.
The question therefore is whether there is a possibility for narcissistic leaders or for the organizations they work in to find a way to address the derailing elements of their narcissism and enjoy enduring success.
Narcissists want to be admired not loved and they are not troubled by a punishing super ego, which allows them to aggressively pursue their goals. They are usually not comfortable with their own emotions and because they are extraordinarily sensitive, they also keep others at arm’s length. Given their difficulty with knowing or acknowledging their own feelings, they are uncomfortable with other people expressing theirs. Narcissists bruise easily and usually do not want to know what people think of them. Finally, they run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. And because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies
Within an organization, Kets de Vries and Miller identified different types of narcissistic leaders and drew an important difference between what they called ‘reactive narcissists’ and ‘constructive narcissists’. Reactive narcissists are cold, ruthless, grandiose and exhibitionistic. They (…) dominate and control and can be extremely exploitative. Constructive narcissists can also be quite ambitious, ‘manipulative and hypersensitive to criticism. But they have enough self-confidence, adaptability, and humor to stress real achievements.’
One could continue to identify visible descriptors of narcissistic personalities in the organization. We believe such exercise can be very valuable for any HR department to build the right system and processes for leadership assessment purposes. These descriptors should also help business leaders better assess their peers and direct reports and appraise them in a more constructive way. This could help them address the identified narcissistic traits and limit their negative impact.
When it comes to narcissistic leaders, once they have been identified, the organization should carefully manage them and their environment to again send the appropriate signals. Refusing to promote a narcissistic leader will reinforce the belief that this is not the leadership style the organization is looking to promote.
As we have seen previously, there are cases were it could be of benefit to the organization to recruit or even promote a constructive narcissist. These could be situations when the visionary and charismatic skills of the constructive narcissist could help accelerate success. Managing this leader out and onto another potential similar emerging situation is of great importance to avoid the destructive elements that will materialize once the narcissistic leader stays in role too long.
The main obstacle in developing humility is related to the difficulty of engaging people in deep personal change and self-awareness. However, we believe there are still a few tools to promote humility in organizations :
- Exemplar leadership : role modeling humility
- Explicit inclusion of humility as an element of the firm’s values
- Hiring practices that look at the individuals’ humility
- Promotion practices that reward humility
- Public rejection of arrogant or overconfident behaviors
Kets de Vries and Miller also added that ‘it might be useful to assign strong, confident, and secure personalities to work with the narcissistically inclined executive, those who are not afraid to express their opinions and can help to introduce more “reality” into the decision making process.’
Apprenticeship, peer training or group work can also lead to ‘mutual identification’, which usually restrains authoritative behavior among equals. Adding project work in groups is indeed a good way to develop humility and self-awareness and allow healthy confrontations to take place within a group of high potentials who have no hierarchical links with each other.
Finally, developing self-awareness remains one of the most impactful intervention every organization should build into its own leadership development process. However, as stated above and according to Kets de Vries and Miller, ‘it is very difficult to change a narcissist’s personality’.
Therapy and psychoanalysis can help narcissistic personalities identify links between moments in the early part of their life when they felt unappreciated or struggled to impress one of their parents and their reactions to feelings of unappreciation from subordinates or peers. However, psychoanalysis has still not penetrated organizations. It is suggested in some extreme cases but remains the entire responsibility of the individual.
Our belief is that a clinical approach when coaching executives can really help them develop their emotional intelligence. Clinically trained executive coaches should allow psychoanalytic transfers, counter-transfers, projections, idealizations… to take place for the benefit of the client.
A clinical coach should be able to address this feeling of incompleteness with a narcissistic leader by leveraging some of the following techniques :
- Enable the senior leader to acknowledge dissatisfaction in feelings and relationships
- Encourage the leader to identify the true motivations behind his desire for achievement.
- Provide him/her with some form of ‘cognitive holding’ by helping him/her understand some of the psychological underpinnings of his behavior
- Help him/her access real feelings (fear, humiliation…) and support his ability to feel
- Help him/her step back and analyse his/her feelings as some of his/her narcissistic behaviors are being enacted during the coaching session. Using the moment and using yourself as a tool to help the coachee make the connections between the narcissistic behaviors he/she is exhibiting with you and what usually happens in the workplace
- Encourage the leader to identify activities that brings him/her peace and satisfaction.
As previously explained, being aware of his own narcissistic behavior and understanding where it comes from could already be a great step forward for a narcissistic leader to accept his need to change and to start seeing the benefits of humility.
– Collins, J., Level 5 Leadership, The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review, January 2001.
– Kets de Vries, M.F.R. and Miller D., Narcissism and Leadership : An Object Relations Perspective. Human Relations, volume 38, number 6, 1985, p 583-601.
– Kets de Vries M.F.R., Star Performers : Paradoxes wrapped up in enigmas, Organizational Dynamics (2012) 41, 173-182