The Narcissist-Visionary

By Michael Maccoby

Forbes, March 3, 2003

Stephen case is a visionary. He succeeded where Prodigy failed in turning Internet connections into a business. Besides being a business genius, he is a narcissist. In the end he alienated many of the people he needed as allies at AOL Time Warner and was shoved out the door on Jan. 12.

This is often the problem with executives who change the world: We don’t like them, we don’t trust them and we don’t particularly like working with them.

Case is just the most recent high-profile narcissistic failure: Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi, Michael Armstrong of AT&T, Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom and Thomas Middelhoff of Bertelsmann were all chief executives who sold themselves and their companies on innovation and vision, only to be kicked out and quickly replaced by bosses whose immediate goals are cost-cutting, debt reduction and steady and predictable growth.

While there is no question that many of these companies were poorly served by their visionary chiefs—their acquisitions, spending and leadership style were out of control—I fear that we are learning the wrong lessons from the fall of the superstar chief executive.

Jack F. Welch, who is now being criticized for his huge ego and sense of entitlement, transformed General Electric with his concept of a borderless organization. His successor, Jeffrey Immelt, has announced that GE is putting $100 million behind an advertising campaign that trumpets GE as innovative. Ad money is one thing; true innovation is quite another. Immelt, like so many successors to superstar chief executives—AOL’s Richard Parsons is another--don't have the personality type that drives innovation.

The big innovators, the people who create new technological empires, art forms and political movements, almost all have the personality type that Freud called “narcissistic.” They reject the status quo or, as Freud writes, “are especially suited to ... take on the role of leaders and ... damage the established state of affairs.”

Unlike the majority of people, narcissists don’t internalize the voice of authority represented by a parental figure, boss or peer group. They have their own idea of how things should be done and go about doing them. They were the programmers who worked at the high-tech firms in the 1970s, making their own hours while creating a way of talking with zeros and ones; they are people like Robert Johnson, now the richest African-American chief executive, who told me in the early 1980s that it was his ambition to be the “king of a black empire.”

But what should we do with narcissistic visionaries who produce results, whether they are chief executives, midlevel employees or political leaders? The answer is not to get rid of them, keep them down or avoid them altogether; rather, the smart thing is to learn how to handle these difficult people.

One bit of advice: Don’t invest your ego in the relationship. Don’t look for empathy, interest in your life or praise. You won’t get it. And like it or not, your job is to protect the narcissist’s image. That means letting him or her take credit for all of your good ideas and accepting blame for all his bad ones. Larry Ellison’s aides at Oracle tell me he appropriates as his own their good ideas all the time. It’s the bargain you make working for a visionary.

For their part, board members ought to make sure the narcissist chief has a trusted sidekick, one who can implement a visionary’s bold strategies. Bill Gates has his Steven Ballmer. Craig Venter, when he was comanaging his nonprofit Institute for Genomic Research, had his wife, Claire Fraser, to keep the lights on. Steve Case had Robert Pittman, whose departure exposed Case’s weaknesses and inability to work well within a complex organization.

We are in a period of great upheaval that needs visionary leaders and charismatic personalities. Let’s not discard them and leave only the folks who keep the trains running on time.

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