The rise of narcissism

Colin Mercer | 6 February 2018

“Executives Fear Leadership Shortage” was the title of an article I read recently. Delayering, the requirement to achieve more with less, growing leadership transparency and probity, shareholder militancy, and the aspirations of family-orientated Generation Y will, apparently, combine to create a dearth of people willing to lead. After all, why stick your neck out and take charge when you can tuck yourself up in a safe corner of the organisation, keep your head down, and enjoy plenty of work-life balance?

At NSCG we do not foresee a shortage of leadership candidates. Rather, we anticipate a more worrying prospect. Those with an interest in social developments cannot fail to have noticed certain cultural shifts in recent years – the desire for fame, the rise of celebrity culture, the growing status attributed to physical appearance in some quarters, and materialism itself all suggest a potential growth in egotism, vanity and pride. The leadership literature identifies narcissism as an important and often problematic feature of managerial personalities, and we think it is on the rise.

The issue, therefore, is not that there will be a shortage of leaders. Rather, the problem will be a shortage of the right type of leaders. We expect to see an increase in people seeking leadership positions in order to satisfy their own desire for egotistic admiration, rather than to help the organisation achieve its objectives. (There may also be a cross-cultural variable at play here – although modesty and discretion appear to be waning somewhat as values in the West, they still appear to have traction in many Eastern cultures).

Indicators of narcissism can include bragging, pretending to be more important than you are, arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and difficulty demonstrating empathy towards others. Interestingly, the over-confidence present in the narcissist means there is often a great deal of early promise in relationships – people are excited to have this person around. However, this initial enthusiasm tends to evaporate as the exploitation, jealousy and suspiciousness become evident. It is perhaps also worth noting that the usual shorthand definition of narcissism – ‘loving oneself’ – is not really accurate, as the person’s pursuit of admiration is driven by insecurity, so that their self-belief has a hollowness to it.

Of course, these are quite extreme behaviours. Surely, we never really see them demonstrated in practice, beyond a select group of A-list celebrities, and of course, by candidates for BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’? The above list may be something of a caricature, but the themes can nevertheless be witnessed in some middle and senior managers. Hints of narcissism can be seen when managers ‘split’ their people, signalling a very clear divide between those they trust and those they do not, and when managers foster a blame culture. To be clear, these behaviours do not, on their own, imply that a manager is a narcissist, and of course we have to be careful with labels, but the existence of these themes, along with other traits mentioned, can build into an overall pattern.

The trait need not always be necessarily negative of course. Constructive narcissists tend to use their influence and authority for positive outcomes by energising, empowering and mobilising others to achieve their compelling vision. Reactive narcissists tend to be distrustful, self-absorbed projectors who shamelessly take the credit for others’ achievements, thereby damaging relationships, and ultimately (if they are senior enough) threatening the success of the venture (see Lubit, and Kets De Vries).

A key implication of this rising tide of narcissism is the need for organisations to be able to spot such characters and to determine if they are likely to bring negative consequences. At NSCG, when assessing we look for leaders who are willing to share the credit for success, and are concerned if candidates seek to scapegoat when failure has occurred. Judicious use of appropriate psychometrics can help greatly here, as can a general awareness of the likely traits and indicators. Credo, the new personality questionnaire from Tests Direct (https://www.tests-direct.com) has useful scales that tap into these dimensions.

Ultimately, we know that leaders cast long shadows. Getting the right people into positions of authority can go a long way to securing the success of the enterprise, and the well-being of the people within it. We should be careful who we select to lead. And where we see indications of narcissistic behaviour, we should invest time to help the particular manager understand the downsides, and capitalise on the constructive upsides.

By the way, you are likely to have found this article both informative and useful. You are indeed fortunate to have discovered it. The clever ideas are all my own. Please circulate it to as many people as possible, encouraging them to send me positive feedback. Negative comments will be haughtily dismissed.

Colin Mercer is a board director and leads the talent strategy consulting business at NSCG. He works with executive teams and boards to enhance their effectiveness. To discuss how NSCG can help transform your leaders and talent, please get in touch.

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