A Japanese Zen master during the Meiji era received a visitor who came to inquire about Zen. The Zen master served his guest tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The visitor watched the overflow with alarm until he could no longer control himself. “The cup is over-full. No more can go in it!” he cried out. “Like this cup,” the Zen master replied, “you are full of your own opinions, beliefs, and assumptions. How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup?”
This enigmatic little tale suggests that people who are too full of themselves—that is, who are overly narcissistic—are bound to get into trouble. It’s generally agreed that a certain degree of narcissistic behavior is essential for leadership success, a prerequisite for anyone who hopes to rise to the top. Thus if we’re to understand life in organizations, we have to understand narcissism. There’s no place where the vicissitudes of narcissism are acted out more dramatically than on the organizational stage, where narcissistic leaders can find themselves but followers must lose themselves.
This blog post looks at narcissism generally, as an aspect of human behavior, and examines how it operates for both good and ill in an organizational context. It also briefly scrutinizes the psychopathology of relationships between narcissistic leaders and their followers as it’s manifested in the process known as transference. But first we should remind ourselves of the world’s best-known account of narcissism, told in a cautionary Greek myth. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who rejected the advances of numerous men and women who fell in love with him. The goddess Nemesis overheard some of his thwarted lovers wishing the pain of unrequited love on him and granted them their wish. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection when he stopped to drink from a spring. Although he realized his error, he couldn’t escape from his infatuation and pined to death. As his ghost was ferried across the river Styx, it leaned over the side of the boat for one last glimpse of itself in the water.
Like so many myths, the story of Narcissus draws on an element of human nature and dramatizes its excess. A certain degree of narcissism, in a spectrum that ranges from healthy selfesteem to destructive egotism, is perfectly natural and even healthy. A moderate measure of self-esteem contributes to positive behaviors such as assertiveness, confidence, and creativity, all desirable qualities for an individual in any walk of life, but particularly so for business leaders. At the other end of the spectrum, however, extreme narcissism is characterized by egotism, self-centeredness, grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitation, exaggerated self-love, and failure to acknowledge boundaries. In this severe form, narcissism can do serious damage. This is especially true within an organization, where the combination of a leader’s overly narcissistic disposition and his or her position of power can have devastating consequences.
With their need for power, status, prestige, and glamour, many narcissistic personalities eventually end up in leadership positions. The ability of narcissists to manipulate others and their capacity to establish rapid, if shallow, relationships serve them well as they move up the organizational ladder. They are often successful initially, despite their “handicap”—particularly in areas where they can fulfill their ambition for fame and glory. Unfortunately, power, prestige, and status are typically more important to these people than a serious commitment to organizational goals and performance. Because narcissists are motivated by selfishness, their successes are ephemeral.
In a position of leadership, people suffering from this kind of disorder become fixated on power, status, prestige, and superiority. They overvalue their personal worth, arguing that, as exceptional people, they deserve special privileges and prerogatives. They act in a grandiose, haughty way, expect special favors, flout conventional rules, and feel entitled; they’re unempathetic, inconsiderate to others, exploitative, and unconstrained by objective reality. Despite the negativity of this description, narcissists are generally upbeat and optimistic. Unless their sense of superiority is challenged, they experience a pervasive feeling of well-being.
When they’re challenged, however, they exhibit irritability and annoyance with others, feelings of dejection, and outbursts of rage. When faced with setbacks or failures, they’re masters of selfdeception, inventing plausible reasons for their (temporary) misfortune. This fantasized rationalization helps them cope. If their rationalizations are not accepted by others, they find someone else to blame for their misfortune.
-Adapted from THE LEADER ON THE COUCH, by Manfred de Kets