Modern-day narcissistic leadership: where is the blood, the heart and the pain?

A recent study found that disruptive innovators in the business world tend to be narcissists. I think we can clearly see that with the late Steve Jobs. By all accounts, including his own, he was exceedingly narcissistic (in the laymen’s definition of said personality trait – and let’s face it, if you’re narcissistic enough to tell everyone you’re narcissistic, well it just becomes sort of tautological).  And, by all accounts, Steve Jobs was brilliant and a grand innovator. A disruptive one at that.  The music industry was most definitely disrupted, with business as usual (i.e. being forced to buy a whole album for just two good songs) going the way of the dinosaur.  I myself have written about disruptive innovations, and in some circles was seen as an outsider who came in and disrupted things a bit. Am I saying I am a narcissistic? No, not necessarily. But I truly am aware of my worth. There was a time I felt a bit of a fraud. I was waiting to be caught, for what I didn’t quite know. But I have since learned that many highly successful ethnic minorities feel that way at one point.  Anyway, not all disruptive innovators are narcissistic. And perhaps, there is nothing wrong if all did happen to be so.

So, what about the business world and narcissism? I will tell you this about the management world.  Not all narcissists are disruptive, not all narcissists are innovative. And most assuredly not all narcissists that lead companies are leaders. Just because you have the title of chief executive officer does not mean you know how to execute.  Just because you bear a leadership title it does not mean you are a leader.  We can forgive a certain amount of arrogance from those who can back it up with sound ideas and actions, and ultimately change things for the better.  Arrogance that accrues solely from a job title is just bad character.

Nowadays, there is no leadership code. You know how there is a bro code? Well. There used to be, or so it seemed, such a code for leading a group of people.  When you are being led into battle, you want to follow an inspirational leader that has heart.  You want to feel good about what you are doing and that something good (however defined) will arise from the undertaking.  Kind of like the TV show Arrow, I suppose.  Or better yet, an alien invasion show. When the show Falling Skies started, for instance, it was quite hard to believe that the main character was really a leader. It seemed a bit contrived. By the end of the second season when he gave his rallying speech, he was much more believable as a leader. Why? What led to that transformation? When he looked angry and haggard at the end, it was because he had fought in the trenches. He had fought side by side with the rebels, the down and outs and the fighters and thinkers. He had been gutted and sliced, mentally and physically. Every inch of his mental being was scarred. He had suffered great personal loses as he had been willing to put himself on the line. Ask yourself this, how many leaders can say the same, even metaphorically, nowadays?

We have plenty of narcissists running companies.  How well the company does is a pure reflection of them, or so they feel and actually argue, regardless of whether they had a hand in any of the actual decisions or work that led to success.  I once had a supervisor, upon my first day of work, who instructed me that I had to produce manuscripts as it would make him look good and that making him look good was part of my job. I immediately thought he was a douche but I went along with it. Now, I would take out my job description and make him eat it while begging for my forgiveness.

Nowadays it seems anybody can be a supervisor.  And most definitely the title of director is becoming fairly nondescript.  If you have ever worked in a place where 2/3 of the employees have director titles, but supervise no team members–you know what I mean. You now commonly have project managers that don’t have the skill sets they need from their team members, nor do they fully understand what is actually required to execute the project.  How is this leadership in any way? What is even worse are those who falsely imagine that they lead, direct, and motivate, but harbor resentment towards their team members who actually do.

There are all sorts of management and leadership classes. Some are one-day, others five-day and a few more are a semester long.  Many will extoll the virtues and sensibilities of a bottom up approach, noting that success is as much a result of the assembled team’s capacity as one’s own knowledge and abilities.  Such training agendas include effective communication styles, extending ones sphere of influence and the effective management of interpersonal conflict. But what if you have no talents of your own and merely depend on the talents of others? Perhaps, that is a viable style of leadership. Seems to have worked for many throughout history. However, that is probably better described, not as leadership, but as riding the coattails of others. Sure, it’s a sort of skill, but not one we should be impressed by.  If you want to pretend, go be an actor.  At the end of the day, there should be a training module on how to be a decent human being and how to find your cold heart and reactivate it.

The question arises: can you be taught to be a leader. Sure, you can be taught the ins and outs of strategic planning. You can be taught the rudimentary mechanisms of team building (i.e. throw a picnic). Sure you can be taught the frameworks for executing high-impact strategies.  And occasionally, can get it right. But at the root of it all is effective leadership the result of nature or nurture?  The mechanics of many things can be taught and perhaps grown, ostensibly nurtured.  But if there is “no there there” how do you grow leadership?  Should it not be something that is part of the soul?  Perhaps a narcissism that is fed by doing good things for others and building positive organizations isn’t such a bad thing, but narcissism due to a lofty position with no concern for other, just makes you a jerk.

As a leader you must bear witness. You must feel the pain and not just acknowledge that others are suffering. As a leader you must fall on your sword, but not in a way that makes you a martyr for all to see, but you must fall on a sword hidden away in the corner while covering up the wounds. When you see your troops (metaphorically speaking) you don’t inspire them by saying you are not burnt out. Especially when you are disengaged from the everyday workings and the endless hours of grunt work. No leader should ridicule their soldiers for being tired, weary and in need of a concrete action plan. Give us vision we can hold onto. Give us your blood. Give us your heart.  And if you cannot, then maybe you should hang up that leadership shingle and go audition for a reality TV show.

9 replies »

  1. I can understand, to a degree, how narcissists or sociopaths find themselves in leadership positions. To be good at leadership or even to desire it takes an ability to either handle the stress or deny it through atypical cognition (hoity-toity for ‘being a bit crazy’). I know that I have some, not all, excellent leadership traits, but can’t bear the stress of being responsible for more than just myself. Hence, I’m a happy-ish worker bee!


  2. I like the way you write! Despite being formal there is a well designed informality within this text and it’s well done! I do have one thing to add though to the last paragraph: Plato once said, “There will be no end to the troubles of the state or indeed of humanity until philosophers become kings or until those we now call kings really and truly become philosophers.” If only right? Haha


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