Saturday, July 7, 2012

Picking a CEO: narcissists need not apply

Narcissism is rampant among high achievers, whether movie starts, business executives or politicians. It seems like the more successful some people get, the more they surround themselves with bootlickers who cater to their ego rather than tell them what they need to hear.

Writing on the HBR blog, executive headhunter Justin Menkes recalls the advice he gave a CEO looking to groom a potential successor from among his high-achieving subordinates.

How do you know when someone can make the leap from high performer to CEO? There is one driving factor that determines the answer: narcissism.

Those selected for development have one universal trait in common: They are by definition high achievers. But there is a difference between those superstar achievers that can make the leap to CEO and those that will implode: To what degree do they feel invigorated by the success and talent of others, and to what degree does the success of others cause an involuntary pinch of insecurity about their own personal inadequacies? Only an individual who feels genuinely invigorated by the growth, development, and success of others can become an effective leader of an enterprise. And it remains the most common obstacle of success for those trying to make that leap.
Menkes has a checklist from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory:
  • Are the individual's relationships with others based on honest, intimate exchanges, or are they formed using a dynamic that regularly reinforces the narcissist's role as a "hero"?
  • Does the individual often talk about how his star qualities make him distinct from his peers?
  • Does he like to be the center of attention?
  • Does the remark, "I insist on getting the respect that is due me," resonate with his worldview?
All of these items play to a twisted egocentrism that assumes the world exists for the benefit of the high achiever. But if eliminating narcissists from consideration is necessary, IMHO it is not sufficient.

A related predictor of failure that I’ve seen time and time again is an insular approach to gathering information, getting advice and making decisions. It seems to be the single best predictor of failure among US presidents — where the raw power being wielded causes senior aides to jealously (and zealously) guard their access. (Cases in point: Nixon, Carter).

So yes, the narcissist has a particularly pathological form of reality denial. But if a leader can’t deal with the world as it is — rather than how he or she imagines it to be — the final outcome is going to be the same.

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