News & Insight
July 2003

Can Narcissism Be a Good Thing?

When organizations look for leaders, they often seek out people who have the drive to succeed, possess the charisma to attract followers, and have a vision of the future that can inspire loyalty and dedication.

In other words, they are looking for people who are somewhat narcissistic.

As personality traits go, narcissism doesn't usually top the spec sheet of qualifications that companies look for in senior managers. "Yet in certain situations, including those where big, bold, transformational change is required, it may be desirable to have someone who's narcissistic at the helm," says Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a member of the WJM Associates coaching and assessment faculty.

According to the classic definition, narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, and a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance. It takes its name from Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who became so obsessed with his reflection in a pool that he could do nothing but stare in the water … and ultimately died of thirst and starvation.

In contemporary situations, people with narcissistic personality traits are said to lack a degree of emotional intelligence, rendering them less sensitive to others' needs. They are willing to make personal sacrifices to succeed, can see the big picture and anticipate trends, and can make difficult decisions without being distracted by empathy, sadness or guilt. At they same time, they risk alienating others in the organization who don't share their perspective.

Flexible and self-aware organizations can devise successful strategies to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk of narcissism in their ranks. This would include surrounding narcissistic leaders with capable and confident advisors willing to offer contrasting opinions, monitoring the risks that narcissists take, and encouraging rationality and long-term thinking.

"We're all narcissistic to some extent, and some narcissism is even healthy," says Dattner.

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