Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails

Sep 15, 2007

Most of what we read confirms the correctness of our approach and technique. Reasonably proud of our successes as clinicians, we blame the illness rather than the patient when we fail.

by Michael Maccoby
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007
300 pages • $14.95 (softcover)

Most of what we read confirms the correctness of our approach and technique. Reasonably proud of our successes as clinicians, we blame the illness rather than the patient when we fail. Yet, occasionally, we encounter a highly successful (perhaps famous) patient whose personhood seems immutable, whose employees and significant others are forced either to accept apparently unbearable attitudes and patterns of behavior or to look elsewhere for empathic support. Trying hard, I wrongly alienated and lost a few of these patients, until one of them brought me an earlier version of Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. Trained by Erich Fromm as a psychoanalyst, with advanced degrees in psychology, anthropology, and business, Michael Maccoby is one of the leading business consultants of our era. The paperback release of this groundbreaking text that is focused on the narcissistic and obsessive personalities in the business world warrants attention.

Maccoby clearly explains the difference between narcissistic personality disorder and nonpathological narcissism by drawing our attention to the standard DSM and textbook definitions of the disorder. The formerare often gratuitously mean-spirited, are clearly dismissive of others' personalities or products, are constantly on the lookout for whatever will confirm their superiority, and are empowered when others withdraw in dismay. In contrast, Freud described true narcissism as a personality configuration in which the only new ideas that such an individual can accept are those that have appeared de novoin his or her mind.

Among the case examples cited by Maccoby is Henry Ford, who scuttled 2 automobile companies before he developed the business model that became the Ford Motor Company. While he was away on an uncharacteristic weeklong vacation, his personal team constructed a minor variant of the Model T (with slightly longer fenders, a different windshield, etc). When he returned to the factory, Ford was welcomed by his entire team standing in a semicircle around their car. Silently, he took a hammer from a locker, ripped and pounded their car to rubble, and walked to his office. The matter was never discussed and the experiment was not repeated. Only Henry Ford could design a Ford.

Similarly, there is a world of difference between an obsessive personality structure and the severely limited life that is often caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The personality formation references persons who simply like rules, neatness, order, and clarity in everything they touch. Narcissistic leaders, says Maccoby, rarely have the ability to direct highly organized businesses, just as obsessive personalities are rarely known for the fluidity, freedom, and sheer inventiveness found in Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Jack Welch, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. Often it is essential that the narcissistic leader team with an obsessive organizer who does whatever is needed to run a company that can reify the dreams of such a productive narcissist.

To this short list, at the suggestion of Fromm, Maccoby adds the novel category of the "marketing" personality. We have all seen these men and women--no matter where they work, they are going to fit with whoever or whatever is in control. Chameleons by nature, they adapt wherever they land and become essential parts of any organization they join. Yes, many of these persons are in sales. But Maccoby calls our attention to the careers of several well-known politicians and performers who can disappear as one type of person and reappear as quite another. A drunken lout can claim religious or political conversion and become a national leader, just as a lascivious entertainer can write a highly moral children's book and thus claim a different identity. Involved here is role assumption rather than character change; the core character structure of these persons is inherently flexible, and they are likely to form relationships that fit perfectly with the role being played at any moment.

The book includes an 80-item multiple-choice test that you can use to find where you and your patients fit on the spectrum of creativity (here, nonpathological narcissism), organization (obsessive), and marketing (role-player) personalities. From his own experience as a business counselor, one of my colleagues has tested several hundred job applicants and has developed new and effective criteria for his recommendations. I hope readers will accept my enthusiasm and give Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails the attention it merits.

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