Is There A Place for Narcissistic Leaders?

by Tim Clouting

Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality types to analyse and why most people think of narcissists in a primarily negative way. Without restraining anchors, narcissists can start to believe they’re invincible, listening less to words of caution and advice. Rather than trying to persuade those who disagree with him/her, they feel justified in ignoring others, creating further isolation – abrasive with employees who doubt them or with subordinates who are tough enough to fight back. As the more independent-minded team members leave or are pushed out, succession becomes a potential problem. Narcissists ultimately don’t want to change – and if they’re successful, they don’t think they have to.

Football provides one of the most public and visible demonstrations of different leadership styles and personalities, with the Mourinho/Solskjaer saga at Manchester United one of the more dramatic in recent years. Mourinho had become more narcissistic the more successful he became, less open to criticism, more convinced of his own powers and rigid in his strategy. While the environment he operated in had changed significantly over the last decade, and other leaders and competitors adapted, developing new ways of playing and winning, he ploughed on with the same strategy that had historically served him so well. His last few months in charge of United were characterised by his divisive and adversarial style, where he constantly demanded respect for his prior achievements, criticised and undermined team members in public and created an atmosphere which further contributed to the team losing belief and confidence.

After his dismissal, a relatively inexperienced new leader, Ole Gunner Solsjkaer was appointed and went undefeated for his first 11 games, breaking new records along the way, utilising the same players but backed by a new sense of freedom, teamwork, and collective endeavour. In Solskjear, we have a leader who has humbly played down his achievements. When winning his first Manager of the Month award, he was quick to attribute it to the contribution of the coaching staff and the players. What a great illustration for the business world, where the empowering style of the CEO unleashed the inherent potential of the organisation. Empowerment 1 – Narcissism 0.

Then things started to go wrong. After being offered the job full time, Solsjkaer’s Utd went on to lose six of their last eight games. Within the space of six short weeks, the commentary flipped back to negativity and people are now questioning the wisdom of offering a three-year contract to someone so inexperienced – appointed in too much of a rush, as the easiest option without exhausting the other possibilities. How fickle the world is!

In today’s fast-changing world, however brilliant the leader, no one person has all the answers. You must look at the culture of the organisation and the strength of the senior team. To truly turn something around, especially culturally, requires a lot of hard work. From my most recent Boardroom Lunch, the guests, including Chairmen, NEDs, and CEOs from across travel, leisure, hospitality and digital, gave me their insight on leadership:

The Partnership Of Culture And Personality

One CEO guest who had held leadership roles in several global corporates and smaller, privately-owned ventures talked about the need to be true to yourself. Although he had worked for different organisations with very different cultures and ownership models, he said that his style had been consistent throughout and you could actively decide whether you flex your style to the new organisation. Working for one very well-known, “colourful” owner, he wasn’t prepared to compromise his ethics and style to suit the owner. He felt that being able to “look yourself in the mirror each morning” was more important to him than working for a narcissistic owner whose values did not match his own.

The Managing Partner of a PE-firm with interests/investment across travel and hospitality spoke about the partnership mentality they sought to adopt with each acquisition. With that in mind, the values and style of the CEO was therefore critical to the venture’s overall success. As the style of the CEO largely dictates the culture of the senior leadership team and business, they had to take a judgment call on the character of each CEO they partnered with. When he looked back over his firm’s most successful investments over the years, it was no accident or coincidence that those that had delivered the best returns and greatest growth, all had strong leaders at the helm that had fostered a thriving culture.

A Partner of a leading corporate finance house talked how in the world of M&A, a “good” investor’s first and last question should be about the culture of an organisation. That said, some owners or investors were not that interested. Different investors value different leadership skills and in the race for survival of the fittest, many would overlook the style of a CEO if it delivered the financial returns they promised. In terms of people who worked within his own organisation, who by virtue of the nature of corporate finance tended to be academically high achievers, he was always interested in those who could display strong EQ (over pure IQ).

Team Dynamics

One of the guests at our lunch noted that millennials find the narcissistic leader deeply uninspiring. Younger people seem to have an intuitive understanding of the importance of the collective. An effective leader brings people together. A true leader treats every person in the team as valuable, no matter the person’s role – which is to say that the group is greater than the sum of its parts.

The leader of an online travel organisation outlined how much of his success had been down to his ability to build strong teams around him, often much stronger in their field of specialism than he was. For him, “leadership” as a skill had to be worked at, practiced and refined like any other skill. To get the best results for an organisation, you had to get the best out of the team, and the only way to do that was to build trust across the organisation. This requires plenty of thought and a significant investment of time, but he felt that by doing this, he was able to extract that “extra 10% of commitment and effort” from those around him and the organisation, the collective leadership team and employees all benefited. Conversely, when he’d left certain organisations to move jobs, it was often linked to what he perceived as self-interested bosses – a relationship which he found uninspiring and unfulfilling.

A serial NED made the interesting observation that it’s entirely possible to take the more positive aspects of narcissism (vision, charisma, inspiration) and counter-balance that with a strong “No2” – someone who could smooth out the rougher edges of the leader and could act as the glue holding the senior leadership together. These critical but sometimes hidden individuals were not interested in the personal adulation of leadership. The issue came if these “hidden” people left an organisation, often then resulting in magnifying the more negative aspects of the leader’s personality. He also gave the example of one highly successful CEO who he worked with who could be utterly ruthless when required, albeit he was always open to listening and hearing an alternate view, as long as it had been well thought through and argued coherently.

Complexity Of CEOs

The CEO of a leading digital organisation talked about how she had left a particularly successful start-up years before (having achieved rapid growth and been listed on the main market) when a new CEO joined and replaced the founder. In this instance, she described how the new CEO came across as very self-interested. Despite the organisation’s success, the new CEO was very dismissive of the previous leader and their achievements. He came in with an autocratic style, didn’t listen to those around him, created cliques and dismissed several members of the senior team. Despite the fact she loved the business and had committed huge amounts of time and energy to its growth, she personally felt she could not work for this specific leader and left the organisation.

The founder of another successful business discussed a particularly high-profile leader of a PE firm, who has often been pilloried in the press for being a difficult leader with a large ego. He admitted that while his mood swings could often be erratic, it meant he prepared “within an inch of his life” for his board meetings. While the experience of working together wasn’t always pleasant, he did learn a huge amount and had ultimately better prepared him for life as a CEO, as he had to learn about every single facet of the organisation (and be prepared to talk about it at length if required).

Balanced Leading  

As long ago as 2001, Jim Collins, the author of business bestsellers “Built To Last” and “Good To Great”, wrote “there is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of our organisations than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric”. In today’s world, as with most things, a bit of balance goes a long way and perhaps a blended approach is the best way to lead an organisation – today’s great leaders are confident and can make bold decisions, but they also create a sense of collective purpose. They do not focus purely on elevating themselves directly but help elevate those around them.

About the Author

Partner, Leisure, Hospitality & Travel Sector
Tim Clouting focuses on executive and board appointments across a variety of functions within Travel, Leisure and Hospitality. He has an outstanding track record developed over nearly 20 years. His dedication and deep expertise has earned him an exceptional reputation with both clients and candidates alike.
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