Saturday, January 20, 2007

Big Egos in Business

"Narcissists are considered a liability in business. But sometimes their lack of empathy and inherent selfishness helps them rise straight to the top."

Donald Trump is known for an ego the size of a New York City skyscraper—all of which has been well-documented on his reality TV show The Apprentice. It's easy to label New York's most famous real estate developer, with his flair for self-promotion and his gold-plated sense of style, as a narcissist. And traditionally, the narcissistic personality—marked by a grandiose sense of self and lack of empathy for others—is considered a liability in the business world. Their arrogance, tendency to envy others and reluctance to take blame or share credit does not recommend narcissists as "team players."

But not all narcissists are bad, says Michael Maccoby, author of The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership. Maccoby, a psychoanalyst, argues that some who fall into this personality type are natural leaders. "These people have freedom from internal constraints," says Maccoby, "and this gives them the ability to change the world."

Maccoby says Trump clearly fits the description of a productive narcissist. In a past example of power and chutzpah, he managed to convince New York City officials to permanently close an exit ramp into Manhattan from the West Side Highway to accommodate his $3-billion construction project.

Successful narcissists possess "strategic intelligence," Maccoby found. That means they exhibit foresight, are "systems" thinkers who don't get hung up on details, are good motivators, and partner with people who complement them. "The most successful ones know to partner with a more obsessive type to keep them out of trouble," Maccoby says. An egotistical real estate mogul who lacks strategic intelligence, for example, may just buy, buy, buy—without executing a comprehensive long-term vision.

Narcissism also works well in situations where big changes are necessary for growth, says Ben Dattner, organizational psychologist and president of Dattner Consulting. "Narcissists can make tough decisions without being distracted by empathy, sadness or guilt," Dattner says.

As for the reality TV hopefuls vying for a one-year contract at Trump's corporation, Dattner points out that "we never hear about anyone else in Trump's organization, so it's unclear what the real role of people under him is."
If Trump picks a fellow narcissist as his apprentice, it will be interesting to see how that person takes to being an underling, since narcissists often get knocked down while climbing the corporate ladder. "They don't take orders, they are not bureaucrats," says Maccoby. "They can be too arrogant and too grandiose, which is why a lot of them are entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates and Martha Stewart."

The narcissist's strength is also his weakness, he warns: "They don't listen to others, and that can do them in. They can also be very greedy." The challenge of keeping the spotlight on Trump should come to him quite naturally.

Carlin Flora