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Narcissistic leaders need external controls

By Michael Skapinker

Published: April 27 2009 19:16 | Last updated: April 27 2009 19:16

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What sort of president will Jacob Zuma be? Genial and conciliatory, or a threat to South African democracy and community relations? There is evidence on both sides.

The evidence of geniality comes from many who have met Mr Zuma. He showed his conciliatory powers in the early 1990s when he helped stem the bloodletting in KwaZulu-Natal.

The evidence against Mr Zuma is substantial too. Prosecutors have dropped corruption and fraud charges against him, but an associate convicted of soliciting bribes for Mr Zuma was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Mr Zuma was also acquitted of rape, but the details that emerged in the trial – that he had had unprotected sex with the HIV-positive daughter of one of his best friends – did him no credit.

Uncertainty about how leaders are going to behave is not unique to South Africa, or to politics. Appointing business leaders ought to be more predictable than a nationwide election. Those doing the appointing often know the successful candidate and have observed his or her progress through several managerial jobs. Yet people are often surprised by top executives’ behaviour.

Those who had watched John Thain’s career at Goldman Sachs and the New York Stock Exchange thought they knew him. One senior official at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York described him as a “stone-cold killer”. The same official observed Mr Thain when, as head of Merrill Lynch, he saved the company only by selling it to Bank of America. The official could not believe the difference. The stone-cold killer was gone, replaced by a man shaken by events. “He had lost his confidence,” the official told the Financial Times.

People change as they do top jobs. Some gain confidence, admitting mistakes and listening more. Others have a few successes, believe they know more than anyone else and then make catastrophic mistakes.

Manfred Kets de Vries, professor at the Insead business school in France, who has written extensively about leadership psychology, says an error people make is they expect executives to behave rationally. But “irrational behaviour is common in organisational life”, he told the Harvard Business Review in 2004.

Prof Kets de Vries believes that “many executives are trying to compensate for narcissistic wounds to their self-esteem that were inflicted in childhood by parents who were either too distant or too indulgent”. Many regard this sort of talk as psychobabble but, whatever the cause, the narcissism of many leaders is pretty evident.

It is also, as Prof Kets de Vries observes, necessary. “All people, especially leaders, need a healthy dose of narcissism in order to survive. It’s the engine that drives leadership. Assertiveness, self-confidence, tenacity and creativity just can’t exist without it.”

Their underlings often idealise their leaders in this early stage. As the narcissism becomes more evident, employees can become disenchanted, particularly those who are not the leader’s favourites. But top executives usually carry on believing their own propaganda, as do their board colleagues, who are often the last to lose their illusions.

Why? Because, as US law professor Jayne Barnard pointed out in an article, “directors may fail to recognise CEO pathologies because they share them”. Or they may recognise them, but believe that “these pathologies reflect healthy, competitive, successful behaviour”.

But mostly, because they have selected the chief executive, “directors become highly invested in their selection; they want their CEOs to do well. Psychologically, they believe he or she will do well. And, oftentimes they cannot bear for the CEO to fail”.

Prof Barnard has a solution: a “pathology audit”. As well as setting pay and discussing succession, directors should at least once a year look at the chief executive’s pathology. “Is the CEO a narcissist and, if so, is that a subject that needs to be addressed through executive coaching or other intervention?”

How would that idea go down? I can imagine many chief executives responding with a rendition of Mr Zuma’s favourite song, “Bring me my machine gun”.

The healthiest democracies understand that controls on political leaders have to come from outside their circle – from an independent judiciary, for example. Any attempt by Mr Zuma to undermine judges’ independence would prove the pessimists right.

Company leaders and corporate boards are less subject to outside control. It is left to shareholders and the media to keep them in check and, because we do not know everything that is happening inside companies, we often fall short.

There are no easy answers to this. When chief executives over-reach, companies fail, causing damage to employees, pensioners and shareholders. It is painful, but at least nothing like as painful as when countries fail.

Write to michael.skapinker@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/michaelskapinker

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