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Narcissistic bosses and why you should love them

From left, Jack Welch, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and the fictional movie character Charles Kane, of the film Citizen Kane.

Narcissists have won wars, built great empires and whipped troubled companies into shape. Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch are but a few.

"They have compelling, even gripping visions, and they have an ability to attract followers," writes leadership consultant and author Michael Maccoby.

But before you get all puffed up about being in such august company, consider this: Even the most productive narcissistic leaders can self-destruct and take their companies with them. Narcissists can be demanding, competitive, thin-skinned, exploitive, manipulative, arrogant and suspicious.

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Nevertheless, Mr. Maccoby views narcissism as being largely beneficial, if not inevitable, in entrepreneurs and chief executives – beneficial because narcissists are innovators, inevitable because narcissists, being ambitious, are the most likely to rise to the top.

Indeed, when it comes to customer service, narcissism is not necessarily a bad thing in a chief executive, says Mark Healy, partner in Satov Consultants, a management consulting firm specializing in customer strategy.

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Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, was obsessive about quality, Mr. Healy notes. "Every employee in the organization understood who his customer base was." As a result, GE products ranked first or second in their category, fulfilling the chief executive's goal.

On the negative side, the boss's narcissism can hurt the customer experience, Mr. Healy says:

• An arrogant and abrasive leader can undermine employee morale, so service deteriorates.

• Narcissistic executives are prone to radical change, resulting in frequent shifts in product, strategy or contacts that leave customers confused and feeling the brand or service is inconsistent.

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• If narcissistic CEOs are the public face of the company, their arrogance and lack of empathy can rub the public – the ultimate customers – the wrong way. "It's a big public relations risk."

"CEOs, especially of startups, need to know what they don't know," says Hugh Scholey, vice-president of High Road Communications. "They need the humility to surround themselves with people they trust, and listen to them."

CEOs must be confident, but success can lead to overconfidence, which can be dangerous, Mr. Scholey says. "You need to extend your skill set and recognize that people are looking for balanced leaders."

Also taking a dim view of narcissistic chief executives are two Pennsylvania State University researchers, Don Hambrick and Arijit Chatterjee. Such leaders' "strategic grandiosity," combined with submissive top management teams, leads to excessive risk-taking, they conclude in a 2006 study.

Narcissistic CEOs engage in "bold, highly visible initiatives" that engender extreme and volatile company performance: big wins and big losses.

What to do if you fall into this personality type?

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  • Find a trusted sidekick who is not a narcissist – a Sancho Panza to your Don Quixote – to keep the company on an even keel, Mr. Maccoby suggests.
  • Take a lead from Jack Welch and get your organization to buy in to your vision and think the way you do.
  • Strive to learn and grow to improve your self-knowledge – and get therapy if necessary.
  • Most of all, learn to adapt to changing times. Narcissistic leaders are out of fashion. Says management consultant Eric Jackson on his blog: “Take risks, change the world, but keep eating (your) lunch in the company cafeteria.”
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