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Narcissism Comes Naturally

I worked for a narcissist early in my career. He shall remain nameless. He was a smart, experienced, and capable businessman. He was highly organized, disciplined, and paid close attention to details. He ran a good meeting, had a good planning process, and kept us on track to meet budget. He was married with a lovely wife and two children.

I learned plenty from this leader. I adopted some of his processes. I admired his personal discipline and tried to get more of that in my life. His high standards raised my capabilities and I performed well while working for him.

But, I quit working for him as soon as humanly possible because at the end of the day, he did not care one bit about my growth and development or the team that I led. He only cared about himself and it was obvious on a daily basis.

He scheduled meetings with complete disregard for anyone else’s calendar and they were command performances. He chose what we ate at our staff meetings without ever asking if anyone else liked that food. He planned fun outings where we played the sport he was best at.

When it came time for performance reviews, he told us all the ways we fell short of his capabilities. He was a miserable boss and I spent every waking hour that I worked for him planning to quit.

Narcissism is rampant in our American culture. It is celebrated in our fascination with self-absorbed celebrities like Charlie Sheen. It is evident in the top CEOs in the country by lists like the lowest golf handicap among American CEOs.

It’s evident in moral downfalls like the Madoff Ponzi scheme that took down hundreds of unsuspecting investors. It is evident in professors more concerned about their tenure than the education of your child. It evident in faith circles where well known religious leaders commit adultery thinking they will not get caught.

“America has become a nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.”
~ Ross Douthat

Before you congratulate yourself on not doing any of the things I mentioned, consider this: narcissism is our natural state. It exists in every single one of us.

If you don’t believe me, offer to babysit a two year old this weekend. Watch their selfish impulses, their refusal to share, their inflexibility to changing circumstances, and watch the culmination of self-focus, and the tantrum. There remains a two year old just under the surface of every adult being. Just watch yourself the next time your fast food order is incorrect or the airlines loses your luggage.

The challenge I bring to you, to be a servant leader, you must train yourself to deny your impulse to be self-focused. This is not a popular thought. Heck, I don’t even want someone to tell me I can’t have a piece of chocolate when I want one. Now you want me to practice denying myself on a daily basis.

“Looking more broadly, is there any human excellence—in the trades or professions, in business, the arts, athletics , academia or marriage and family life—that is NOT the fruit of saying “no” to our transitory desires in pursuit of what endures?”
~ Rev. Gregory Jensen

This quote is so provocative and true that it must be considered. It says there is no excellence accomplished in this life without self-denial. Think about it.

Excellent relationships require giving up your own wants for someone else. Excellent athletic performance requires giving up day after day of practice and preparation. Excellence in the medical profession requires years of schooling. Excellence in fatherhood requires giving up a golf game to be at your son’s soccer game. Excellence for the painter means stacks of incomplete canvases that didn’t make the cut.

Excellence in achieving business results means denying your selfish desires. It means staying late to coach a team member through a difficult situation. It means changing your schedule to attend a meeting that is essential to getting to the business goals. It means putting yourself to bed at 10 so you are not a grumpy leader tomorrow. It means denying your need for recognition, and making sure the team who did the heavy lifting gets public credit.

What behavior do you need to stop because it may be perceived as self-centered to your team? What behavior do you need to demonstrate to your team that lets them know they are more important than you?

0 Responses

  1. Not sure about business but medical and academic institutions reward narcissism; individuals advance to the extent that they can exploit the system to their personal advantage. You never get promoted by helping a team or junior colleague.

  2. Hi Dan, Thanks for your comment. Our culture skews towards rewarding narcissism to be sure. We celebrate individual performance, not teams. We celebrate the accumulation of material goods for self, not achievement for the people or the enterprise. It stems from a belief that leadership is about the leader…the leader’s position, the leader’s power, the leader’s performance. What if the highest performing teams are selfless, ambitious for the team and the enterprise not themselves. The academic research says servant leaders companies outperform the S&P by 24%. Let’s develop a new kind of leader for the future. Cheryl

  3. Hi Cheryl –

    I agree that at some level servant leaders need to put others’ needs ahead of their own needs – – to deny themselves. However, from a marketing perspective, I think we may be better served to sell this in a different way.

    Actually I think servant leaders actually think about it in a different way. When they are serving others, they do it not from a place of denial of themselves (i.e. I have to give up my need in order to satisfy yours). They do it from a place of joy and wholeheartedness. You see as they help others be successful they are fulfilling a higher order need within themselves to be of service. This energizes them rather than depletes them. That’s been my personal experience anyway!

    I would be curious about your thoughts on this.


    1. Hi Henna,
      I do share your belief that some are naturally wired for service and find great joy in expressing their heartfelt need to serve. However, my experience in work is that our cultural norms for leadership have largely “beaten this out” of our leaders, in favor of power or achievement driven mindsets. As such, I think we need to give permission and proof points that a service mindset yields exceptional performance….far stronger results than the self-centered goals and ambitions celebrated by our culture.

      At Popeyes, by calling out servant leadership as our purpose, the service-minded leaders have stepped forward and given energy to our cultural transformation. But more importantly, we have started important conversations with our leaders who have never thought about leadership as being in service to the people and the enterprise. For these leaders, the conversation is provocative….and when they become “converts” they are amazed at the results that follow.

      Look forward to continuing our exchange.


  4. Cheryl, I’m embarrassed to say I have 2 college friends who are severe narcissists. Surprisingly they have also become the most successful financially. However, one works as part of a Wall Street hedge fund and the other is in business development so I guess there are arenas where these types can flourish (telemarketing could be another place).

    Having had a personal relationship with a narcissist, I can only imagine the suffering in working for one. I think of Lloyd working for Ari Gold in the HBO show “Entourage”. I applaud you for creating a culture here at Popeyes that values humility. As we all strive for success, it is sometimes hard to balance the innate desire for achievement and recognition while staying humble. Thank you for your leadership.

  5. Ron, it is certainly true that there are many narcissist leaders who have had exceptional financial success. In fact, I believe most people are fascinated with this leadership model of position, power, and personal achievement. I often ask young people what they admire about Donald Trump. They always list material things like jets, girlfiends, and a reality TV show. Then I ask them, would you like to WORK for Donald Trump. They have to think about it for a minute, before they realize the two words he is most famous for are “you’re fired.”

    You hit the nail on the head. A narcissist leader may be wildly successful in financial terms. And they may, in fact, have many followers who aspire to the same model of leadership….hoping to follow in their footsteps of financial success. But narcissist leaders are not fun to work for. They do not care about you. They do not invest in developing you. They have selective integrity….meaning they exhibit integrity only if it helps them reach their personal goals.

    I encourage you to continue to develop your own personal leadership model , with a focus on what you can do to lift up and prepare the next generation of leaders for our world. This higher purpose will be more rewarding and more effective in driving results than the narcissist model.

    Thank you for being this kind of leader at Popeyes.

  6. “The academic research says servant leaders companies outperform the S&P by 24%.”

    Very interesting! May I ask you to cite a source? I know this is a theme in Drucker but it’s exciting to know that there is some research to back it up :).

    Just read your write-up on Forbes.com and discovering your blog. Inspiring stuff! Congrats on Popeye’s turn-around.


    1. Dear Owen, Thank you for your comments. I just posted the source of the servant leadership study in this week’s post on Real Leaders. The research is in a book called Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership by Sipe and Frick. Servant leadership companies, over a ten year period, outperformed both the S&P and the 10 Good to Great Companies that Jim Collins wrote about. Cheryl

  7. Thank you, Cheryl, for posting this blog and sharing your insights and experiences. I just discovered your blog and find it very informative and relavant. Better yet, this information isn’t from a textbook–it’s from a true leader with a quantifiable track record of success! Thank you for helping to lift up and prepare the next generation of leaders…I feel in this society, I need all the positive guidance I can get as I prepare for a future in leadership.

    1. Dear Heather, Thank you for your kind remarks. I’m glad you are finding the blog actionable as you develop your leadership skills. Let me know if there are topics you would like me to address, All the best, Cheryl

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