Can a narcissist be a good leader? This is the question that comes up for me when I contemplate the possibility of a President Trump.
The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.” Characteristics include arrogance, dominance and hostility.
According to psychologist and Harvard professor Howard Gardener, Donald Trump is a “textbook” narcissist. And while healthy narcissism can be valuable in leaders, unhealthy narcissism can be extremely destructive.
Though many famous productive and healthy narcissists come to mind in the corporate world (e.g., Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Larry Ellison), it’s a bit more difficult to think of narcissistic world leaders that aren’t viewed as dictators (e.g., Muammar Qaddafi, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot.)
However, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton all displayed many healthy narcissistic qualities while in power. These healthy narcissistic qualities include: self confidence that is in line with reality, a genuine concern for others and their ideas, and the ability to follow through on plans based on their values.
Conversely, unhealthy narcissistic qualities include: self-confidence that is grandiose, devaluing and exploiting others without remorse, and an inability to follow a consistent path because it is not grounded in values.
Healthy and productive narcissists can be visionaries with creative strategies, who are able to find meaning in the challenges of a changing world. Narcissists are not only risk takers, but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric.
Sigmund Freud named narcissism after the mythical figure Narcissus, who died because of his pathological preoccupation with himself. Freud said that narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. They are typically overly sensitive to criticism, poor listeners and—though emotionally clever—they tend towards exploitation rather than empathy.
“Companies need leaders who do not try to anticipate the future so much as create it,” wrote Michael Maccoby in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article titled Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons. “But narcissistic leaders—even the most productive of them—can self-destruct and lead their organizations terribly astray. For companies whose narcissistic leaders recognize their limitations, these will be the best of times. For other companies, these could turn out to be the worst.”
Narcissists can turn unproductive when, due to their lack of self-awareness and restraint, they become unrealistic dreamers, says Maccoby. They nurture grand schemes and harbor the illusion where only circumstances or enemies are blocking their success.
They listen only for the kind of information they are seeking. They don’t learn from others, nor do they like to teach. Instead, they indoctrinate others and make speeches. Rather than search for the best solutions among others, they dominate meetings with their own agenda.
Paradoxically, they are extraordinarily sensitive yet they avoid emotions. And in this age of teamwork and collaboration, the narcissistic leader is emotionally isolated.
Many narcissistic leaders become more confident as they increase the number of followers, and very often this leads to flagrant risk-taking, which inevitably results in their downfall. See Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky.
For the narcissistic CEO, Maccoby recommends three ways to avoid the traps of their own personality. Let’s look at these and how they might apply to Trump in a governing setting.
- Find a trusted sidekick. This is someone who can keep the narcissist grounded. Don Quixote had Sancho Panza just as Bill Gates had Steve Ballmer. Would Donald Trump choose a Vice President or Chief of Staff who could provide adequate counsel to avoid disaster? I have not yet heard or read that he has such a person at his side now.
- Indoctrinate the organization. The narcissistic leader wants all subordinates to think the way he or she thinks. Jack Welch had a personal ideology he indoctrinated into GE managers through speeches, memos and confrontations. Rather than create a dialogue, he made pronouncements. Donald Trump may have great difficulty doing this given the divisiveness of a divided congress, not to mention the need for diplomacy on the world stage.
- Get into analysis. Though a narcissistic leader is more interested in controlling others than in knowing and disciplining him or herself, this could prove especially useful to uncover and correct vital character flaws. The best narcissistic corporate leaders will do this to become more self-aware and learn humility. Donald Trump, like any politician, would likely hide this even if he were courageous enough to take it on.
Perhaps what at least partially explains Donald Trump’s current lead in the polls is that he has convinced many Republican voters that they should be very afraid because these are chaotic times. Fearful chaotic times are when narcissists most often thrive.
Whether in a corporate or government setting, healthy productive narcissistic leaders can go a long way towards rallying support needed in order to bring about sustainable change and progress. It typically requires gaining some self-awareness and becoming more grounded.
However, unhealthy unproductive narcissistic leaders in either setting can bring about greater divisiveness, reckless planning and execution, and a total lack of concern for others. This type of narcissistic leader would prove detrimental to any company or country.