Business Today
Leader on the Couch
Narcissus was a young man who saw his image for the first time in a pool of water and fell in love with that image.
Leader on the Couch

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Santhosh Babu


At 45, he is a successful senior leader who is full of energy, enthusiasm, charisma and drive to get things done. He can motivate his team with his impactful communication and strong presence that has a seductive charm. He is like the Alpha dog in the pack who believes in himself, can drink and party till early morning and start his next day in the gym as if he had eight hours sleep in the previous day.

His peers have a problem with him, his ways of managing people and the role modelling he is doing in the organisation. Many of his team members try to emulate him, while peers  complain that he is a bad influence to his team and a threat to the organisation's values and brand. I facilitated several offsites for his team and had an opportunity to see his brilliance and narcissistic side.

Narcissus was a young man who saw his image for the first time in a pool of water and fell in love with that image. This ancient story in the Book 111 of Ovid's Metamorphoses from the 1st century B.C. gave us the word narcissism. "Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by it's fading," W.H Auden wrote.

Many narcissistic leaders have this blind spot about how they are being perceived and somehow do not take feedback positively from their peers and colleagues, creating a destructible future for themselves. While there are productive narcissists who are responsible for organisational transformation, we also see a lot of narcissists in senior positions who cannot listen to others and demonstrate lack of emotional intelligence and empathy.

Many of them are preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of their enormous success, power, attractiveness and intelligence, and addicted to others' admiration. And in the long term, they're not very good at maintaining positive, interpersonal relationships with others.  While narcissistic leaders are relentless in their pursuit of goals, they can also be ruthless, not caring much about the damage that occurs. They are sensitive to criticism, and self-centred, believing that everyone must think the same way that they do.

So, what is narcissism? It is an unconscious active behavioural response to deep, unrecognised feelings of inadequacy. Some people who feel deep down that they're not good enough might decide that it's better not to take a risk and better not to have high aspirations. We could see a lot of people who feel they are inadequate and thus do not take positive action.

However, narcissists respond to their feelings of inadequacy in the opposite way. They strive to succeed in public, to be better than others, to have more than others, to feel superior and win others' respect, admiration and acclaim. So, the key feature of the narcissist is that their drive to succeed comes from a hidden sense of inferiority and inadequacy.

"But all people - especially leaders - need a healthy dose of narcissism in order to survive. It's the engine that drives leadership. Assertiveness, self-confidence, tenacity, and creativity just can't exist without it. But once a narcissist gets into a position of leadership, funny things start to happen. Because narcissistic leaders are often charismatic, employees start to project their own grandiose fantasies onto the narcissistic leader. And suddenly everything becomes surreal," says Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, a professor at INSEAD.

I once did an assessment for a multinational organisation and found a leader to be extremely competent and successful in all the tests and activities that I put him through. Later, when I discussed his results with the CEO and his peers I realised that his achievements originated from a deep sense of inadequacy and insecurity.

Some bit of narcissism exists in many leaders and can be constructive. It is important to recognise destructive narcissists. How can you determine if the leader you have is merely narcissistic or has acquired overdose narcissism from a highly dysfunctional childhood? Here are some signs or symptoms that you might be dealing with a destructive narcissist. You may be dealing with a destructive narcissistic leader/leaders if he/they:

1. Exaggerates his achievements and talents; is boastful and pretentious.

2. Do not give credit to others contributions.

3. Always wants others attention.

4. Want others to comply with his wishes.

5. Speaks frequently of himself; constantly uses the word "I".

6. Is unwilling or unable to empathise with the feelings and needs of others.

7. Exhibits highly exaggerated self-confidence; the belief is that they can do no wrong.

8. Is emotionally volatile.

9. Bullies and abuses those who work for him; intimidates others to get his way.

10. Is obsessed with attaining power and influence and addicted to control.

11. Becomes paranoid when he senses danger or dissent.

12. Attacks those who question or criticise his decisions.

13. Prefers to surround himself with an unquestioning loyal and uncritical staff.

14. Exploits others; forms relationships and romantic attachment only with those he feels will advance his goals and self-esteem.

15. Has trouble working in a team.

16. Can get very confrontational when others deliberately or accidentally threaten his self-esteem.

17. Do not allow others to grow and have trouble retaining good talent.

While narcissistic leaders are highly achievement-driven, they seldom experience true love. Psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: "The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one's narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one.

The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one's desires and fears."

For the narcissist, it is more important to look good and think well of oneself than it is to feel good. So, what kind of interventions and support help leaders to be in the couch and transform themselves so that they do not have a destructive effect of the organisations? How can organisations make sure that the narcissistic leaders are not driving the organisations to a destructive future?

Coaching can be an effective tool though coaches need to be extremely careful as narcissistic leaders' ability to accept feedback from others is very low. Many a time a 360-degree feedback is not effective as they surround themselves with loyalists who worship them or people who do not have the guts to give honest feedback.

The board and other senior people need to be aware of the destructive narcissistic nature of the leader and support him or her to be more self-aware and to get in touch with reality and their feelings. Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness can help narcissists. "The first is: remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. The second is: don't over-estimate your own merits. The third is: don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. And the fourth is: don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you."
 
(The author is a celebrity coach and speaker on leadership who facilitates organisational transformation. Buddha in the Boardroom is his weekly online column for Business Today. Bookmark businesstoday.in/buddhaintheboardroom and follow @BT_India and @hypnobaba to be alerted of Babu's columns)

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