Big Ego, Big Business, And the Vision Thing

The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership , by Michael Maccoby. Broadway Books, 298 pages, $26.95.

Reclaiming narcissism as a good thing might seem an odd cause célèbre , but that’s the very restoration project that psychologist and business guru Michael Maccoby has taken up in his latest book. As Mr. Maccoby sees it, in the three years since the boom lowered on the bubble and once-admired CEO’s like Steve Case, Bernie Ebbers, Jean-Marie Messier, Martha Stewart and Jack Welch all fell to earth, the business press, Wall Street and, significantly, other business theorists like Jim Collins (author of Good to Great ) have learned the wrong lesson from the crash and scandals: that the failings of these high-flying, iconic and, yes, narcissistic CEO’s only prove that we don’t need self-styled visionaries running things.

“The lack of understanding of narcissistic leaders has already led to a backlash, a pendulum swing to conservative, value-based, bottom-line CEOs,” Mr. Maccoby writes. He allows that these more self-effacing, weekends-spent-puttering-in-the-family-garage execs have their place. They’re ideally suited to run a retail empire such as Walgreens or Circuit City. But when it comes to the kinds of rapidly changing high-tech and entertainment enterprises The New York Times calls the “information industries,” he insists you want a narcissist at the helm.

“In the 80′s and 90′s, a whole school of leadership thought emerged that can be summed up by Daniel Goleman’s concept of ‘emotional intelligence,’” Mr. Maccoby says. “This leadership theory … equates successful leadership with empathy, listening to others, sensitivity to feelings, anger and impulse control, and working through consensus. This is the business equivalent of wishful thinking-I’ve found that it may make for a nicer place to work, but emotional intelligence does not guarantee success.” What does-and this is the meat of his book-is narcissism coupled with what Mr. Maccoby calls “strategic intelligence,” a set of skills that keeps the obnoxious aspects of narcissism in check.

From the get-go, Mr. Maccoby is careful not to appear an apologist for self-absorbed prigs. Aware that the colloquial use of narcissism evokes a negative stereotype, he swoops to the semantic rescue.

“If you’re like most people, you think a narcissist is a vain, self-centered egomaniac. But this is a description of behavior-and most likely, bad behavior-rather than portrait of a personality type …. A true narcissist is the kind of person who (1) doesn’t listen to anyone else when he believes in doing something and (2) has a precise vision of how things should be. A narcissist possesses this dual combination of traits, not one or the other; plenty of people who aren’t narcissists never listen to anyone else (they are negativistic, closed-minded or arrogant), and plenty of people have an idea of how things should be (they are often just know-it-alls or big-talkers). It is the combination of a rejection of the status quo, along with a compelling vision, that defines the narcissist.”

As a term, narcissism dates to 1908; it was first used by Sigmund Freud, who took it from the first-century poem by Ovid, found in Metamorphoses , about a boy, Narcissus, who stares at his own reflection in a pond until he drowns. The myth of self-destruction, Mr. Maccoby notes, has long eclipsed Freud’s later, more subtle definition of narcissism as one of three “Libidinal” types: the erotic (seeks love above all), obsessive (upholds ideals-a.k.a. totally anal) and narcissistic (fulfills himself). Mr. Maccoby’s broader agenda with The Productive Narcissist is to promote recognizing and managing relationships based on these types-along with a fourth, Erich Fromm’s “marketing personality,” which describes those who readily adapt to new circumstances.

Mr. Maccoby has always liked categories. In a previous best-seller, The Gamesman, 1976, he delineated four: the Craftsman, the Organizational Man, the Jungle Fighter and the Gamesman. (The representative gamesman of the title, Richard Hackborn, later recruited Carly Fiorina to Hewlett-Packard). But Mr. Maccoby confesses that he, too, succumbed to the vogue in emotional intelligence and leaders-as-facilitators, and now it’s really Freud’s and Fromm’s categories you ought to master. He even includes a personality questionnaire at the end of Chapter 1 so readers can take a little journey of self-discovery. “The best way to illustrate to clients that personality type actually exists,” he explains, “is for them to determine their own personality type.”

(Full disclosure: your reviewer scored as a Narcissist-Marketing, which, naturally, is a walking contradiction. By nature and nurture, the marketing type tries to get along, while the narcissist does it his way. The weaknesses of the marketing personality proved an especially harsh toke: “No center, no inner core that directs them. No lasting commitments to their work or to people. Anxiety hangs over them. Pervasive anxiety turns into depression.” Might as well dial up some Xanax now.)

No doubt some will find these categories immensely useful; at the same time, personality types such as Obsessive-Erotic suggest a scary personals ad. There’s also an echo of the Vanity Fair horoscope here, as Mr. Maccoby does his best to cite individuals who embody the various personality types he describes. Narcissistic-Erotic? Oprah Winfrey. Narcissistic-Obsessive? Jack Welch, sure, but also Larry Ellison. Narcissistic-Marketing? (Hey, that’s like me!) Jan Carlzon, the former CEO of Scandinavia Airlines.

Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Craig McCaw? Narcissists all. Also: Napoleon Bonaparte, F.D.R. and Mohandas Gandhi.

Much of The Productive Narcissist reads like it began life as a speech or two. Since in speechwriting, the rule is to say what you’re going to say, say it, then sum up by saying what you just said, Mr. Maccoby repeats himself. Like any good consultant, he also never misses a chance to interject something about his 30 years’ experience or his former illustrious client So-and-So.

Ignore the usual self-help business foibles and the ever-dubious use of personality surveys, and you may find that The Productive Narcissist delivers some useful insights, especially if you have a narcissist boss. Or if you happen to be one yourself (ever suffer from paranoia, overcompetitiveness, isolation, grandiosity?).

Michael Maccoby will never recruit an army to defend narcissism as a virtue, but he’s convincing when he agues that for many firms, it’s a mistake to hire a do-it-as-it’s-always-been-done-only-cheaper obsessive: A narcissist is the right egomaniac for the job.

Brad Wieners is a columnist for Business 2.0 and correspondent for Outside. He lives in New York.