Narcissistic? Psychopathic? Or humble? Choose your style…

by Didier Marlier on Saturday November 5th, 2011

In which population do we find the highest percentage of people with psychopathic tendencies? Not in jail, not in gangs but… in Boardrooms!!! This is the surprising stand that one of the world’s most respected specialists in psychopathy, Professor Robert Hare, takes in his book published in 2007, “Snakes in suit”. Of course the statement is provocative and does not emerge from a global study. But coming from someone who has studied this population for most of his career, it is nevertheless fascinating. Hare contends that, to make it to the Board level one may need to use so much manipulation, take so many tough and unpopular decisions and sacrifice so many relationships to meet their objective, that many people who made it to that level may have psychopathic tendencies… Worrying!

In another great article[1], Michael Maccoby, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, starts by writing in praise of the narcissistic leader: They “see the big picture and offer gripping visions of the future. Skilled orators and creative strategists, they attract and inspire scores of followers”. But, rapidly, the author recommends cautiousness with such characters as they are, following him:

  • Sensitive to criticism: “unimaginably thin-skinned, narcissists can’t tolerate dissent. They say they want teamwork, but really want “yesmen”.
  • Lack of empathy: “They crave for empathy but are not empathetic themselves. They can be brutally exploitative”.
  • Intense desire to compete: “They pursue victory ruthlessly, often unrestrained by conscience and convinced that threats abound”.

Do you think you know or have worked for anyone like this???

Luckily, we can also tell of countless examples of the opposite: inspiring, engaging, connecting and enabling leaders.

One year ago, I was invited to support the Board of a large multinational. Its members, (as one would expect all strong personalities), had fallen into the pattern we so often see: The collective I.Q. had become inversely proportional to the average of individual I.Q.s… So they worked hard during two full days at reconsidering the strong stands they had taken vis a vis each other… And at the end, here is the reflection I received from one of them: “I am certain you know of Pearson, the publishing company. They have a tag line which illustrates well my vision about leadership: “Always Learning”. Although in that very process of learning one seems to be “always stumbling”. And since I rarely have other people giving me an “informed perspective and advice”, I never know which one of the two I am doing, learning or stumbling.  As you say, Leadership is an “art” not a “science”.

I’m still digesting last week. I was moved, hurt and strengthened by what was going on.  All at once I think.  Hence, trying to order the feelings, so that strength is what’s left at the end. But this, without leaving behind the emotional connection that will give me “authenticity” with the team and myself…  I truly was so borderline at the end of our session, that if you had not intervened to give us a break and invited me to recapitulate, I may not have recovered from my “deep hurt of hearing my leadership shortcomings” to summarize and “play back” to the team with some degree of strength.  I don’t know where that strength came from.  It just did! 

I think the key is forward momentum.  Energy.  Positive Power.  But it can’t be blind or with ear plugs on.  It must be “with them” in this rejuvenated tractor, together up front, not being “dragged”.  Over the past 4 years it’s been all over the place.  Sometimes we’re all together, sometimes all apart. Sometimes a few are up in front with me, sometimes in the back.  They, my team, take turns coming up front or going in the back, whether by their own will or because I send them back.  Every now and then, a few fall and do not recover…

My point is I do need to “listen” much more and much better, so as to have the sensors to correct direction and course of action, as well as to choose the right balance of strength/support, since this is so different for each member of my team, myself included.”

I was profoundly moved by so much integrity, courage and… humility. I have never been very humble myself. Coming from a long tradition of lawyers, both from my mother and my father’s side, my role models since childhood were men who would fiercely fight their corner and never gave up until they would have proven their point and score against their opponent. Humility? Admitting temporary incompetence? Being vulnerable? Accepting I had taken a wrong decision has always been very difficult things for me. But when I saw this C.E.O. and read his e.mail, I felt that I had no more excuses: I had seen a powerful man and leader, role modeling humility in action.

I was recently sharing that moving experience with one of our Brazilian colleagues, Marcos Nascimento and he summed it up beautifully: “The word “Humility” has a Latin root, “Humus” which means fertile ground, rich in nutrients and ready to receive the right seed. A humble person is permanently prepared to learn and let blossom “good seeds” in the fertile soil of their soul. True humility is firm, self secure, sober and never blended with hypocrisy. It is the most noble of all virtues and predisposes leaders to authentic wisdom.”

This meeting was another blessing amongst the talented and exceptional leaders my partners and I have the privilege to work for. It was another defining moment in life. Letting our psychopathic or narcissistic tendencies lead us to the top may not be the best route…

 Short trips in Paris and Basel, but mostly home this week. have a great week all!


[1] Maccoby M. “Narcissistic leaders : the incredible pros, the inevitable cons” Harvard Business review Jan/Feb 2000

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2 Responses to “Narcissistic? Psychopathic? Or humble? Choose your style…”

  1. Didier,

    I really enjoy this post.

    I think it is one of the best this year.

    Thank you.


    • Thank you very much Mauro… Coming from you it is a moving feedback and great honour. You make my day!!! Have a great day yourself!


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