21st Century Leadership: The Upside of Narcissism

Is it time to consider the value of CEOs with strong personalities: bold, visionary, radical and even narcissistic leadership?

The great accomplishment of [Steve] Jobs’s life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies – his petulance, his narcissism, and his rudeness – in the service of perfection. ~ Malcolm Gladwell

I’ll tell you why narcissistic leadership might be better for leading your company in the 21st century: Like it or not, we are in the midst of great social, economic and political upheaval. The way we live and work has changed tremendously in the last 10 years, and I believe it’s likely to be radically different in this coming decade. I think it’s going to take some pretty strong leaders to push through the rapidly evolving changes required for companies to achieve and sustain success.

Perhaps we need to take another look at what’s needed in leadership style during this period of uncertainty and transition. Are conservative, by-the-book personalities best for driving success? Or is it time to call on radically visionary leaders?

There’s a case to be made for narcissistic CEOs who can lead companies to greatness, inspire followers and achieve game-changing solutions in our rapidly evolving world. In the words of Michael Maccoby, author of Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails: “It is narcissistic leaders who take us to places we’ve never been before, who innovate, who build empires out of nothing.”

Unfortunately, with the banking meltdown and recession that followed in 2008, capital has been shifted away from risky investments, spurring more conservative, by-the-numbers leadership personalities to take charge.

This doesn’t change the fact that we’re still living in an era of continuous invention and experimentation. I think it takes strong, visionary leaders to unleash the power of emerging technologies, turn ideas into practical tools everyone can use, and change the way we live and do business.

Think about it: Conservative leadership, focusing on what works now, can negatively impact the technological and social advances required over the next 20 years — particularly in emerging fields like nanotechnology, genomics and gene therapy, robotics, artificial intelligence, biomedicine, bioengineered food, environment, energy and health care.

Given the huge social and economic stakes, there’s an urgent need to understand leaders’ personality types — particularly, the promise and peril of radical, visionary leadership. When does visionary leadership veer off into unproductive narcissism?

Narcissists can be honest or crooked, brilliant or ordinary, wise or foolish. The label is often misused and misunderstood, and it’s usually applied in a negative context. Consider this: Narcissists can be passionately bold visionaries, highly capable of persuading others to embrace the value of their ideas.

In the last 20 years, we’ve enjoyed radical advances from companies led by productive narcissists like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, Howard Schultz, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.

But how do you know if a budding leader with strong ideas in your company will turn out well or derail with increasing responsibilities? I see the potential – and the risks – when I’m coaching high-potential candidates in the work I do.

What do you think about the importance of leadership personality in the success of your company? Would you rather see a conservative leader, or someone bold? I’d love to hear your take on this.

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