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Are Narcissistic, Uncaring People the Most Successful Leaders?

I just saw the Alex Gibney’s documentary about Steve Jobs, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”. It’s more true to the man than Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs”, also showing now. I’ve already showed my hand in my blog post on the 2013 film “Jobs”: “Can a Narcissistic Bully be a Good Leader?

So what’s the message? Jobs was a visionary, bullying, aesthetic genius, utterly vindictive, brilliant business man, emotionally cruel, technologically insightful, white collar criminal, cultural icon.

To traditional leadership theorists, he is one of a kind. After all, aren’t the most successful leaders humble, altruistic and empathetic? Unfortunately for that idea, I just picked up a book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at Stanford Business School with the edifying title “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time”. It begs to differ.

Pfeffer’s thesis is that the vast majority of leadership books and leadership training are based on the premise that successful leaders are indeed humble, altruistic and empathetic. The problem is that they are all wrong. In point of fact, all the serious leadership research out there actually demonstrates that most leaders, including the most successful leaders are actually not like that at all, and in fact many of them are actually the opposite.

He has a particular thing about narcissistic leaders. Of course these are, in the vast majority of cases much maligned. It certainly isn’t good for your writing and training career to actually say that narcissistic leaders are usually more successful than those who are more self-effacing. To back it up he rolls out a laundry list of “bad” guys who were successful leaders; Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart and so on. And he doesn’t spare the politicians either:

Donald Trump heads his list. Maybe he has a point. He definitely isn’t a nice guy and he definitely isn’t one of Jim Collins’ Level 5 leaders, but he is rich and, who knows, he might even get to be the US President. “Nuff said.

But Pfeffer points out some home truths. People who are modest who want to be leaders are usually not going to get there because if they are so modest, no-one is going to believe them. What boards and recruiters are looking for are highly articulate, over-confident smoothly brash candidates who say they not only do what the board wants, but actually surpass it. If they aren’t prepared to say that, how could anyone expect them to achieve anything? This is America right?

And people who are immodest and self-promoting are much more likely to become leaders simply because they try harder and because they are noticed. No-one ever got to be a leader by not being noticed so if you are narcissistic and self-promoting you are much more likely to become a leader. And even if you are not successful in achieving great business outcomes, if you are narcissistic and articulate you will have an enormous gift for explaining these inconvenient facts away so that boards don’t get rid of you even then the evidence overwhelmingly says it should Sound familiar?

It gets worse. Pfeffer refers to research conducted at UC Berkeley that individual who are over-confident; achieve higher social status, respect and influence in groups. They get better ratings from job interviews. Narcissists have higher likeability ratings, especially in the short-run. Furthermore, research shows that the higher the degree of narcissism, the greater the likelihood that the person would be in a leadership position.

Of course most people don’t like people who show themselves to be over-confident and narcissistic. But it seems that in professional and political settings, these are the people who are most likely to be chosen as leaders. Professional leadership types usually set out to try to correct for this by giving us ways to be more modest and less narcissistic. But the evidence shows that this is unlikely to help anyone wanting to be a leader.

Another thing in the Steve Jobs film. Clearly his empathy levels were very low. He’s not alone. Check out successful leaders like Elon Musk, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump and you will find the same thing. But then again, if you drive people to do the impossible, can you afford to be sympathetic with people who can’t rise to the occasion?

Would anything of transformational or breakthrough value ever be achieved if you relaxed the pressure when the going got tough? Steve Jobs never did; that’s why he was successful.

A caring leader who cares about the pain his employees experience in breaking through next-to-impossible barriers is not going to going anywhere transformational. So the message is if you want a leader to achieve something transformational he or she has got to be uncaring and narcissistic.

All of this totally cuts across the grain of modern leadership thinking. The Steve Jobs films I cited about show someone who, despite all the negative characteristics, is much more typical not only of leaders, but also of successful leaders. We might not like to hear that, but it seems to be the truth.

Yet another inconvenient truth.

















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