Is Narcissism always a bad thing?

August 12, 2014

NarcissusNarcissism is often associated with ‘the dark side of leadership’. Recent studies offer a revised perspective

A review in The Economist [March 22nd, 2014] was entitled Narcissism: Know thy selfie. It reviewed two recent books on Narcissism: Mirror, Mirror: the uses and abuses of self-love, by Simon Blackburn, and The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck.

Lasch and the Culture of Narcissism

In examining these books it is worth going back to the psychodynamic treatment of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. It is worth revisiting this classic study as the critic As Siegel summarized the work:

in “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch took what was still mainly a narrowly clinical term and used it to diagnose a pathology that seemed to have spread to all corners of American life. In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval. Lasch saw the echo of such qualities in “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, and the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations.

The full-on connection between narcissism and many of the evils of modern society was always likely to attract a revisionary accounts such as those of Blackburn and Lubeck.

Narcissism and balance

Blackburn argues that a ‘healthy’ self-image is bounded at one pole by excessive self-regard, and at the other pole by lack of adequate self-image. This adds needed nuance to the Lasch position, as well as to the popular connection between narcissism and the dark side of charismatic leadership. His plea is for positioning the individual more carefully in their context. The prevailing view of egotistical leaders may have slipped too much into polarisation. Where he is closest to Lasch is in his cutting observations of advertising which seeks to bolster the self-image of the consumer (Blackburn takes the ‘because you are worth it’ message of L’Oreal as an example]

‘Good narcissism’

Lunbeck adds the point that the neo-Freudians have tended to focus on narcissism as bad, and that Lasch contributed this cultural belief. Freud, she argues, saw the development of self-regard as a form of ‘good narcissism’.

Narcissism as a dilemma

Both Blackburn and Lunbeck show us that narcissism may be more of a dilemma to be understood than a universal curse.

Suggestion to leadership tutors

Essay question: Is Narcissism a bad leadership characteristic? Discuss, drawing on the work of Simon Blackburn and Elizabeth Lunbeck

Guilt: a new insight into leadership effectiveness and pathologies

November 27, 2012

Guilt has been identified as factor associated with leadership effectiveness. We assess the promise of the GASP scale, and consider the absence of guilt in leadership pathologies

Citing the work of Professor Taya Cohen [image opposite], William Kremer of the BBC World Service suggests that guilt may be an under-researched factor of leader effectiveness.

Shame and guilt cultures

For background, he notes the work of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who as early as the 1940s identified shame cultures such China and Japan, and guilt cultures such as America:

In a 1946 study, [Benedict] distinguished between “shame cultures” such as Japan and China, and “guilt cultures” such as the US. Whereas the guilty conscience is a means of social control in individualistic societies, face, honour and ostracism have the same role in Eastern societies, including China and Korea. Although the distinction is controversial, research suggests that in some cultures shame can be a springboard to positive action. For example, one study found that Chinese managers in Hong Kong used shame to resolve conflicts, while separate research has found that US managers were more likely to use shame to punish employees.

Professor Taya Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University has looked at the correlation between guilt proneness and ethical action. Her work is directed towards understanding the role of moral character traits, such as guilt proneness, and why interactions between groups are characterized by more competition, greed, and fear than are interactions between individuals.

The GASP scale

The GASP scale has been described in the scholarly journal of personality and social psychology in an article by Professor Cohen and co-workers, Introducing the GASP scale: A new measure of guilt and shame proneness.

Another gasp

The GASP scale is simple enough to produce another gasp from traditional cognitive psychologists who would deny that anything credible can be extracted from a four item inventory. [I would argue on the contrary that the more imaginative the concept, the simpler the means needed for collecting initial quantifiable data]

Claims for the emerging research

The research suggests that leadership may be associated with feelings of guilt which are translated into actions of social benefit. I have heard variations of this from friends who acknowledge a sense of guilt instilled in them through a Catholic education.

Leaping to conclusions

I find the central idea of interest although the concept is one which risks too rapid evaluation. There is need for some thorough ‘map-making and testing’ here. Maybe Benedict’s guilt/shame distinction would be a starting point.

The absence of guilt

I find Professor Cohen’s work a refreshing addition to the leadership canon. Most of my life I have tended to dismiss guilt as a residue of social shaping and something to be overcome. However, a complete absence of guilt may be a contributing factor to the behaviour of leaders deficient in ethical judgements of their actions, and thus one explanation for the much discussed dark side of leadership.

The intoxication of power: From neurosciences to hubris in healthcare and public life

October 7, 2012


There is increasing interest in neurological examinations of leadership behaviours and pathologies. The Royal Society of Medicine examines current research ideas

On Tuesday 9 October 2012, The Royal Society of Medicine, in association with the Daedalus Trust set out to explore aspects of the pathology of leadership and decision making: how it may be understood and what may be done about it.

The meeting acknowledges the origins of the concept of the Hubris Syndrome as being postulated by Lord David Owen. Dr Owen who was listed as a participant on the day.

“Exciting developments in cognitive, affective and social neuroscience and constantly evolving systems of commissioning, business and governance in healthcare, together with relentlessly changing cultures in society make this a timely, even essential conference.

The aim of the conference will be to integrate emerging knowledge from neuroscience, social sciences and organisational governance to nourish benevolent leadership and create effective constraints to hubris and related conditions.

How can we contain hubris and nourish benevolent leadership?
How can we prevent collusion with hubris in groups and develop effective governance constraints?
How can we create cultures of cooperation, accountability, creativity and effectiveness in diverse institutions in society?”

Does social networking “rot the brain”?

An earlier LWD post [February 2009] asked whether social networking was causing neurological changes. The topic has prompted fierce debate about possible changes to neural connections through too much time spent on the computer.

The dark side of leadership

Leadership studies have increasingly identified a ‘dark side’ to the exercise of power. In particular, the charismatic leader stands accused of operating often through narcissistic personality characteristics. The new more clinical approach seems to offer more insights into this important avenue of research.

Monty is appointed Ryder Cup captain: A curious king-making process

January 30, 2009


Colin Montgomerie is appointed Europe’s Ryder Cup captain to wide acclaim from players and pundits alike. By the manner of his appointment reveals a curious king-making process

The right man, it seems. The right stuff. A great competitor. The best player never to win a golf major, and Europe’s top ranking player for nearly a decade. And he also lifts his game for Ryder Cup competitions. So it seems these facts make him the ideal captain for the Ryder Cup. Or, maybe, the best captain that the selection process could come up with.

Colin Montgomerie is as well-known a public figure as almost any in the sporting world. His exposure to the general public has been huge through televised records of countless tournaments and interviews. A turbulent private life has brought further and unwelcome publicity. A few years ago, a breech of rules blew up into a Jakartagate incident for which he was censored heavily. Even this week there is a little matter of an appeal to reverse a driving offence conviction [30th Jan 2009].

Over a period of years he has presented himself as a person of towering rages, at caddies, press, and in reports of alleged violence in his private life). The symptoms are not unknown in leaders in all walks of life. They may well be part of the dark side of the charismatic personality documented by such leadership experts as de Vries, Kellerman, and Kotter. Our correspondent Jeff Schubert has a lot to say on boardroom and political dictators, and of the effect they have on their close associates.

A powerful need to achieve in a leader is not infrequently associated with aggression, ideally channelled into performance. It is tolerated in the successful leader, but it is also then cited subsequently by those who were silently compliant if the leader loses the battle to retain the top job.

In some cases, the selection trade-off is clear but the risk is judged to be worth taking. This may be because of conditions of crisis, or the absence of one ‘safe’ candidate above others.

In this case, details reported of the decision-making have been reported the general public. The process is an interesting one, and worth considering by students of leadership and ‘king-making’. We know that there is considerable amount of consensus-seeking among the leading European Tour players. We know that a group of king-makers including representatives from the players arrives at a decision over a series of meetings. The process is very thorough. We know that Monty was an influential member of the selection group, and that for the most part was not considered as the (traditionally non-playing) captain. He had made it clear that although declining from his peak he intended to fight for his place as a player in the forthcoming Ryder Cup, in Wales.

Another candidate, Olazabal, was a far greater favourite, with Ian Woosnam as second favourite, someone who would have the additional attraction of added support from Welsh audiences at the Celtic Manor course. The Times on line has a good background to the tortuous reasoning around the decision which went against the Spaniard.

Montgomerie himself suggested that in these discussions, that ‘it became clear that my time had come’ [my recollection of his words in several interviews in the days after his appointment ]. Other reports suggested that another player had put Monty’s name forward. That sounded as if the selection had become mired-down, and that the various claims for the (one-off) appointment had managed to neutralise one another, and weaken the prospects of the front-runners.

In this version (not discouraged by Monty subsequently), onee his name was suggested, it made sense, to the selectors. It had a similar effect on Montgomerie. Scales dropped from his eyes (so to speak). A moment of insight.

And so it was that a decision was reached. After a few weeks and in a subsequent meeting, the appointment was confirmed publically.

The appointment is greeted with considerable enthusiasm by the press (and not just the report in The Scotsman). I expected a few high-profile dissenting voices in the press. It was also greeted with enthusiasm by the players. Not so unexpected, as the captain gets to chose two players for the team, (the others appointed by their places on the European Tour order of merit. That fact, and Monty’s expressed view that he would like to pick all sixteen, makes it a bit more difficult to find players willing to offer churlish remarks about the newly appointed captain.

Colin Montgomerie has managed to present himself as a person who can show a loss of self-control under stress. This may be a price worth paying. Players explain why they need someone vastly experienced in winning as a player in the Ryder Cup. After the last match they qualified this in remarkably ageist terms to exclude otherwise outstanding candidates It seems they would be less overawed by a contemporary figures with whom they has played, than say a Nick Faldo who was a great player froman earlier generation. Ah, that’s OK then. Over fifties need not apply.

I’m not convinced by the rationale of this (or is it a rationalization?). That is not to say that the result may be alright. In which case everyone will feel comfortable about preserving not just the selection process, but these assumptions that accompany it. And if Monty’s team lose, there will be plenty of denying that the captaincy emerged within a rather curious king-making process.


The king-making was also marred by leaks which produced betting irregularities.