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Healthy Narcissism

Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

At a first meeting with a new client my impression was of a woman at the top of her game – a fast moving executive who had sailed past peers to achieve the top role because of her technical expertise, strong drive and impressive ability to rally people around her and get things done. As she told her story, brimming with confidence and pride, she caught herself and asked, “I’m not some kind of narcissist, am I? I just think that I’m really good at my job.”

When clients tell me that “they’re not some kind of narcissist,” their tone is often defensive and their point is that they do not want to be perceived as an egotistical maniac. The term narcissism in popular culture has a decidedly unpleasant connotation, as we are all meant to be team-oriented collaborators, with little personal prestige caught up in our work. The image of Narcissus staring at his own reflection is off-putting, to say the least.

This caricature of the overly modest, selfless person is very dangerous, as it is critical for a leader to possess a healthy dose of narcissism. My former professor at INSEAD, Manfred Kets de Vries, has written extensively about narcissism. The essay in this book, “Coach and Couch” provides a good summary: Manfred makes the very important distinction between constructive narcissism and reactive narcissism, categories that were originally created by developmental psychologists who were studying children. The idea is that all of us need to have a sense of constructive, or healthy, narcissism in order to get up in the morning and perform our roles with an appropriate level of confidence. This behavior is even more critical for senior leaders for whom every move is scrutinized. Problems arise, however, when this feeling grows to the point where a person is fixated on power and the sense of his or her own invincibility. When a person exhibits this reactive form of narcissism, it becomes dangerous in both business and personal life and it results in bad decisions and failed relationships. Psychiatrists have even defined a personality disorder around the diagnosis of reactive narcissism.

It can be simple to spot the difference. My new client was describing, with little embellishment, what she had actually achieved in her career and how this would inform her ambitious plans as a CEO. Her ambition was grounded in a real understanding of the complexities and challenges ahead, and she was applying critical judgment. Her healthy narcissism manifested in an appropriate level of confidence in her capacity to succeed. All of this is great, and we discussed how important it would be for her to tap into this inner confidence, particularly during the inevitable rocky roads ahead. Having said this, I am sometimes more challenged, particularly when working with founders promoting a new idea; founding a new company is not something that most of us can do, and one of the things that differentiates successful entrepreneurs is their deep confidence in their ability and the potential of their idea. This is what leads people to say, “He must be crazy to have started that company.” Even so, it is still necessary for founders to have a real sense of their own abilities, and to know when and how they need help.

In my experience assessing CEO candidates, I have noted that exhibiting a healthy level of narcissism is critical factor in evaluating potential. So, look in the mirror and fall in love – just not too much!

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