Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails

Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails

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by Michael Maccoby

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Today's business leaders maintain a higher profile than their predecessors did in the 1950s through the 1980s. Rather than hide behind the corporate veil, they give interviews to magazines like Business Week, Time, and The Economist. According to psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and consultant Michael Maccoby, this love of the limelight often stems from


Today's business leaders maintain a higher profile than their predecessors did in the 1950s through the 1980s. Rather than hide behind the corporate veil, they give interviews to magazines like Business Week, Time, and The Economist. According to psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and consultant Michael Maccoby, this love of the limelight often stems from their personalities—in a narcissistic personality. That is both good and bad news: Narcissists are good for companies that need people with vision and the courage to take them in new directions. But narcissists can also lead companies into trouble by refusing to listen to the advice and warnings of their managers. So what can the narcissistic leader do to avoid the traps of his own personality? Maccoby argues that today’s most innovative leaders are not consensus-building bureaucrats; they are “productive narcissists” with the interrelated set of skills —foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating, and partnering—that he terms “strategic intelligence.” Maccoby redefines the negative stereotype as the personality best suited to lead during times of rapid social and economic change.

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Let's start out with a question I have asked hundreds of people at work: Can you describe your personality? If you're like most people, you don't have a ready answer. You may cite temperament traits such as "upbeat," "reserved," and "outgoing," or behavioral traits such as "dependable," "caring," and "hardworking." Some people focus on a key part of who they are, like "I play to win" or "I never give up." You may type yourself according to a work role--engineer, designer, manager--or a lifestyle label--parent, spouse, single. Very few people think of themselves as having a personality type that encompasses how they habitually meet the challenges of work and social relationships, the deep-rooted way they resolve the human needs to survive and prosper physically and emotionally, to make life satisfying and meaningful.

Imagine that you work in a small, successful technology company. You report to a manager who is known throughout the office as the "numbers guy." He sets the budget for your department, keeps an eye on the bottom line, and runs the office infrastructure. If you have a proposal for a new initiative, you know you won't get anywhere with him unless you've done your financial homework--worked up a spreadsheet or a detailed profit-and-loss report. How do you know this? Because you've seen how he reacts whenever he's approached without the financials in place; he can be rude, dismissive, even blow up at anyone who ignores his need for facts and figures. You and your colleagues like to complain about him, thinking that his obsession with the numbers gets in the way of more creative or spontaneous ideas. Nevertheless, you take his concerns into account whenever he pops into your office to ask a quick question, or when you need something from him, or whenever you're called upon by him to make a snap decision at a staff meeting. There's a pattern to his behavior, a typical, habitual response that you and your colleagues have noticed over time. He's not just playing a role; you think he's expressing his personality. You may even have a name for his behavior, calling him "anal," or a "little picture" person, behind his back.
You are already engaged in personality typing; in fact, you use these "typing" skills all the time, without even being aware of them. You may not have a manager or colleague who is exactly like this "numbers man" (although many people do), but surely you have a boss, coworker, or colleague whose behavior you can predict with a degree of accuracy. You have a good idea of what certain people will do in any given situation, how some of your colleagues will react to the stress of a group meeting, the demands of a deadline, or a particularly hard-driving boss. You might say about one of your coworkers, "She would never disagree with our boss," meaning that, in your experience, it's not in her nature; you've never seen her do it, and you can't imagine her acting differently. You notice the little smile of pleasure she shows when the boss nods approvingly at her positive statement--or how she turns off when a colleague looks for support to challenge the boss. Even if you can't come up with a label for her behavior, you've done some mental accounting of her personality, and this unconscious typing plays a part in all of your encounters with her.

Each and every day, we are confronted with a flood of people whose personality quirks and qualities baffle and intrigue us, challenging our own ability to "deal" with them, to decide, in a moment, how to act and react in a variety of settings--at home, in school, on the job, and even on the street. We intuitively recognize that there are different personality types, but there is a much better way of looking at people, a deeper and more precise understanding of personality type that can make you more effective in handling all of your relationships, especially in your career. This book is the result of my own endeavors to make sense of personality type, to provide diagnostic and conceptual tools for recognizing and understanding the different types. This "typing" is not a mere intellectual pursuit or parlor game to be played for fun, nor is it meant to be reductive; I believe that a better way of seeing personality can have a profound effect on our view of human nature and the way we interact with people. The example I opened with was meant to show just how much we use this information to bring order and sense to the profusion of personalities we encounter on a daily basis.

Since information about type influences your own behavior, it can only be to your benefit to have a greater understanding of personality type when managing your relationships. The ability to recognize personality type can be learned, and so can applying these insights to your career. When people come to me for coaching, they usually ask: What should I do? What steps should I take to be more successful? I never give advice without first determining an individualÕs personality type, then exploring the qualities of that type; once a client has a better grasp of his or her own type, we can strategize together. There is no one-size-fits-all career advice. It depends on personality type. Before you can fully understand your own potentialities and shortcomings, how they can work in concert with the personalities of others, and how you can become more productive, you need to define and understand your own personality.

An example from my own work makes clear that an understanding of personality type can have dramatic and lasting effects on your work life. I've been working for the last year with a businesswoman--the Professional Woman--and recently asked her to describe the effect that fresh insight into personality has had on her career. She immediately said that it had changed "everything," that she now sees personality type in everyone, including herself, and that this rush of readily usable data had sharpened her judgment and impacted how she handles a multitude of situations. She told me one particular story about her partner, a difficult and self-centered manager, who was arguing with one of her colleagues. After a few strained exchanges, the boss shouted in frustration, "Why can't you be more like the Professional Woman and just ignore what I say" The Professional Woman used to be the one who had a contentious relationship with her partner, always sparring with him over the right way to handle the business. She used to spend a lot of time trying to change her partnerÕs personality, to fight it, always hoping he would conform to her expectations. No longer: She has become the office model of how to deal with the boss and his personality. This important shift in office dynamics didnÕt come about through self-help books or psychotherapy (although she had tried those in the past); it was a result of learning more about her own type and that of her partner, and applying some of the lessons of typing to her day-to-day encounters. Only in the last year has she figured out, with a better knowledge of personality, that it is in her strategic interest to ignore a lot of what her partner says in the moment and phrase her own ideas and concerns in a way that allows him to respond positively. Knowledge of personality has allowed her to be a much better partner, a collaborator in the true sense of the word.

This is the kind of result I've seen in most of the people I've counseled. A psychoanalytic understanding of personality type brings something that was only dimly seen into sharp focus. Many of my clients have moments of "aha," when they recognize a pattern or dynamic. Then they don't have to be told how to react to or deal with people; it becomes obvious. I'm confident about the usefulness and importance of personality types because I have seen case after case when a know-it-all CEO starts to listen, when a needy and dependent human resource manager starts to stand up for himself, when a consultant who always checks the way the wind is blowing challenges the client--when certain personalities take the best of what their type has to offer and become more productive. These are the moments when a client realizes that he can change more than his behavior--that his new knowledge about personality can change his entire way of dealing with life.

When I began my psychoanalytic career in 1961, I was a skeptic about personality type, even with my academic background in Freudian psychology. It was true that I could spot temperamental differences, how some people could be called outgoing and others shy, or how typical pathologies, such as obsessive worrying, were woven into the fabric of certain people's character. But I thought that "typing" people, breaking the seemingly limitless personalities into rigid and narrowly defined categories, stripped human beings of their individuality, took away the qualities that made them irreducibly, ineffably, them. It wasn't until I worked with the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, whose books Escape from Freedom and Man for Himself dealt with personality types, that I began to challenge my own thinking. Fromm and I had long discussions about personality types--Fromm speaking in favor of them, I against. No matter how much he tried to persuade me of the importance of personality type, I remained unconvinced, unwilling to see personality types as anything but robotic categories that deprived people of the freedom to choose who and what they wanted to be. While late-night conversations and theorizing didn't sway me, my fieldwork, the systematic interviews that I helped conduct with 850 people in a Mexican village, did. Fromm sent me out with a questionnaire that asked people what they most liked and disliked about their work, their concept of love, how they thought a father and a mother should experience love, the people they most admired and why. I also asked them to describe their dreams, their children, and what they thought about disobedience or stealing. I spent about two hours with each person, and once the people believed I was really interested in understanding them, they opened up. Most of them had never considered these questions, but once they did, they started to learn about themselves and their values. It was only against the background of the extensive interviews that I saw distinct patterns of behavior emerge, take shape. I also observed how children were raised and began to understand why different types develop early in a childÕs life. It took observing, questioning, and talking to many people who lived and worked and grew up in almost exactly the same environment for me to see that different types continually, habitually react in similar ways, especially to the challenges of work and social relationships. I realized that my old way of thinking was akin to calling every single color simply "color," rather than recognizing the distinctive hues of blue, red, and yellow. The comparison to color is not chosen lightly, because while people, like colors, are often a mix of different types, one usually predominates.

In my consulting work, I've found that the best way to illustrate to clients that personality type actually exists is for them to determine their own personality types with the questionnaire on page 26. I've used this questionnaire with executives to begin a conversation about how personality plays out in the workplace and influences leadership. Toward the same end, I encourage you to complete the questionnaire to determine your own type. To get the most out of this questionnaire, try to put aside your ideas about the categories or behaviors that you usually label successful or good or desirable. Think carefully about each question, and respond in a way that reflects how you, not some idealized version of you, actually behave. This is by no means easy. As a psychoanalyst, I'm a participant in people's struggle to see themselves as they really are. Those who are better equipped usually have spent some time and work on self-reflection and honesty, and the questionnaire is meant to aid that process. The description of personality types that I present later in the book will allow you to interpret the results.
That said, it's still hard to see yourself as others do. Even if you're as honest as possible, your coworkers or colleagues might have other ideas about you. The way to get around this is to complete the questionnaire first, then ask a colleague or friend whom you trust to complete it "for you"--hat is, to answer the questions as they see you. You can then compare the results and see exactly where you may be lacking in self-knowledge, which will help you to arrive at an honest appraisal of your behavior and its strong and weak points. People who do this are often surprised by the results, motivated to learn more about themselves, and interested in how they can become more productive. Helping people to understand themselves and become more productive has been my professional purpose throughout my career: working as a child therapist in Boston, coaching teenage boys in a Mexican village, practicing as a psychoanalyst in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., and finally working with all levels within organizations, from factory workers and telephone operators to middle managers and CEOs. In every case, the people who were open to seeing themselves clearly, including their defects, were best able to free themselves from their hard-wired past and develop and grow into the people they wanted to be, to determine their future. A goal of this book is to facilitate your quest for self-knowledge as well as your understanding of the people you work with.

A note on the methodology: The questionnaire breaks personality or character into four types that I've adapted from the work of Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm. The questions are based on hundreds of interviews I've conducted with managers in more than twenty countries, particularly in my work with Hewlett-Packard, IBM, AT&T, Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), and Volvo, as well as professional managers in health care, the federal government, and local law enforcement. The evaluation of the responses is in the appendix, and more complete descriptions of each type are laid out in the next chapter.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

MICHAEL MACCOBY is president of the Maccoby Group and director of the Project on Technology, Work and Character, a nonprofit research center.

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The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My home library shelves are cluttered with many of the best selling books that present varied and conflicting leadership theories. Very often, those best selling theories are presented in popular and simplistic terms that appeal to wishful thinking but are not very applicable in the workplace. Maccoby cuts through the leadership literature clutter with a very clearly reasoned and persuasively presented vision of leadership. It is a very insightful and integrated vision based on 30+ years of practical field research and experience as a consultant, anthropologist, psychologist and leadership coach. As a Director of Human Resources with 20 years of experience, I found Maccoby's description of the narcissistic leader and other personality types to be a useful aid to understanding CEOs, Presidents, Vice-President and other leaders who were difficult to relate to and eluded explanation. Maccoby's self-inventory and descriptions of Freud's and Fromm's personality types are also pragmatic tools for any managers and would be leaders who are interested in understanding themselves and in developing their ability to partner effectively with other personality types. Maccoby's elegant writing style and use of entertaining poignant illustrations from productive narcissists we know and love make his analysis of the personality types and strategic thinking entertaining, lively and dynamic... without losing sight of what is practical. What you learn from reading this book may not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it is very useful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Three stars is a compromise between the deeply flawed - and even dangerous - 'advice' offered by the author - and the impressive scholarly overview it is embedded in. The book purports to teach us how to harness this force of nature known as malignant or pathological narcissism. Narcissists are driven, visionary, ambitious, exciting and productive, says Maccoby. To ignore such a resource is a criminal waste. All we need to do is learn how to 'handle' them. As the author of 'Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited', I had the chance to work with thousands of narcissists and their victims, including in corporate settings. Maccoby's prescription is either naive or disingenuous. Narcissists cannot be 'handled' or 'managed' or 'contained' or 'channeled'. They are, by definition, incapable of team work. They lack empathy, are exploitative, envious, haughty and feel entitled, even if such a feeling is commensurate only with their grandiose fantasies. Narcissists dissemble, conspire, destroy and self-destruct. Their drive is compulsive, their vision rarely grounded in reality, their human relations a calamity. In the long run, there is no enduring benefit to dancing with narcissists - only ephemeral and, often, fallacious, 'achievements'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Maccoby's fascinating book shows that narcissism is normal and productive in the visionary leaders he describes and analyzes. Even as a colleague who knows his other books, I can say honestly this is a bold and stimulating book. It is well written and enjoyable to read. He describes clearly why at this time of economic transformation these visionaries are playing such an important role in society, business, and science. Maccoby reveals key elements in the life stories and innovative work of such leaders as Jack Welch, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs, Esther Dyson, Andy Grove, Steve Case, Craig Ventner, among others whose names are well known and in the media almost daily. Many books talk about people suffering from malignant narcissism who are so sick they could not lead corporations or make groundbreaking discoveries or creations. Michael Maccoby has written about normal narcissistic character like that of visionary leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, and Mohandas Gandhi. Maccoby shows why these leaders are effective, and also how to work with them. The book includes a survey which readers can take to understand themselves in terms of the four normal types of character, narcissist being one, the book also describes. Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor, University of Southern California, an authoritative writer on leadership himself, says about this book: 'An original and insightful addition to leadership studies. Maccoby redresses a balance long needed to fully understand the practice of leadership.'