History Lesson: No, Narcissism Does Not Benefit Leadership

On January 22, an article in the Washington Post bore the title "Just the Right Level of Narcissism to Be Successful." The article cited studies claiming that narcissism can promote group creativity, technological innovation and charismatic leadership.

"Sometimes you need a little narcissism to be a good leader," (or "to get ahead,") -- I hear this canard a lot. It's one of those ideas many people repeat without thinking about them. Six years of counseling violent narcissists taught me otherwise. They had been arrested for assault and other such crimes and sent into my groups for mandatory therapy.

Of course, such men do not represent the norm. But neither do the undergrads used in most psychology studies. Some day research psychology will learn not to study things only from the outside, from within a self-deluding fantasy of objectivity. Some truths must be lived with to be grasped.

When I attended grad school, I worked for a time as a writer for a company that sold technical manuals. My first manager got along with everyone, and she was flexible about my school schedule. Then a narcissist replaced her. He micromanaged nearly every project we undertook because he felt sure he knew our jobs better than we did. No coffee was allowed on desks anymore, and they had to be spotless when we left at night. "Your school schedule is a problem," he told me bluntly. I gave my two weeks' notice. Upper management failed to look into the numerous complaints made about him. Later, I learned that the entire team quit because of him.

In another work setting, a prospective employee I politely, but firmly, turned down for a job interview, responded by verbally disparaging my department. Psychoanalysts refer to this as narcissistic rage. Its vindictiveness resists all efforts at reconciliation.

Now, one might argue that yes, severe narcissism causes problems, especially at work; but what about moderate narcissism? The problem with this question is its assumption that narcissism is a kind of quantity, like soup: A little salt adds flavor, but too much sours the mix. Narcissism is not extra-large self-esteem. It represents a pathological regression of personality that impacts the sufferer's entire life. The narcissist is a deeply wounded egotist who seeks glory because of an underlying lack of self-love. Narcissistic people feel empty unless other people supply them with admiration. Narcissists lack self-insight, empathy and emotional maturity: all key qualities of a leader who gets things done.

To see how narcissism affects teamwork, consider the case of General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac under the Lincoln administration. Although McClellan's army greatly outnumbered that of his Confederate opponents, he refused to attack them, instead complaining incessantly about the President's unwillingness to reinforce him. Again and again he passed up opportunities to end the war speedily by overpowering the enemy forces he faced. Other officers referred to him as the "Young Napoleon." More than once he kept Lincoln waiting in an anteroom while he pretended to be busy or otherwise indisposed.

McClellan's letters reveal a narcissistic preoccupation with glory. He could become dictator of the United States, he confidently assured his wife, if only the idiots in the White House would get out of his way and stop giving him advice. His boasts about his ability to beat the Confederates never translated into direct action. At Antietam, he did manage a victory, but he failed to follow up and smash the rebels as they retreated toward Richmond. Only after a series of such disastrous mistakes was he finally removed from command. Even then he blamed everyone but himself for his demotion.

To lead, one needs a healthy dose of self-esteem and the confidence it can bring. One also needs commitment to a pattern of success despite the occasional failure. But narcissism is not an ingredient in successful leadership. The narcissist's obsession with being right, first and special destroys an essential sensitivity to the array of relationship intricacies and nuances that every good leader must nurture.