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Nip narcissism before it nips you

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Self-awareness can break the destructive pattern of narcissism, one of the most common characteristics of high achievers, says a top gun on leadership.

Narcissism is both a creative and a destructive force. It can drive corporate success when leaders blend their own search for self-improvement with improvement of their companies’ performance.

But it also can run amok and cause corporate meltdowns.

Firms such as Citibank, brainchild of Sanford Weill, one of the most narcissistic executives in the world, have collapsed because narcissism breeds incredibly complex, unmanageable grandiosity.

Another example, Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier, was ousted in disgrace in 2002. Before that, he became known as “J6M,” pronounced jee-seez-em, which stood for “Jean-Marie Messier: moi-meme, maitre du monde,” roughly translated as “myself, master of the world.”

A clinically recognized disorder, narcissism is a pathological reaction to problems with self-worth, says Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, a leadership professor at the INSEAD business school in France. It shows up in the need to prove that you’re special and entitled to special treatment. Other traits: selfishness, lack of empathy, enviousness, exploitation and a need for constant attention.

Narcissists feel that rules apply only to others, which may be contagious and encourage an entire organization to take the low road. Narcissists may throw tantrums, which will drive away stable business partners and clients. Those who remain will tell narcissistic leaders what they want to hear.

Quite a few leaders in the ancient world came to believe they were gods. Even today, you’ll find a boss who distributes forms for subordinates’ appraisals of him with their names printed at the top.


1. Make sure your team has a strong sense of purpose aside from the joy of your wonderfulness.

2. Cultivate the feeling of being in a family. This includes keeping business units under 150 people and cultivating profitable new lines when the old ones go away. You don’t lay off your family.

3. Celebrate the fun and meaning in the work itself. This takes the focus off … you.

— Adapted from “The Thought Leader Interview: Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, strategy + business.

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