Saturday, February 10, 2007

Like Narcissus, executives are smitten, and undone, by their own images.

THERE'S nothing wrong with a little self-esteem. It's grandiose delusion that causes all the trouble.

How else to understand the case of the 78-year-old founder of Adelphia Communications, John J. Rigas, and his two sons? The three were led away in handcuffs last week by federal authorities, who accused them of ''rampant self-dealing'' and using Adelphia, a publicly held company, as a ''personal piggy bank.'' If guilty as charged, the Rigases may represent yet another example of the narcissistic entitlement that permeated so many companies in recent years.

Few of the nation's executives now accused of fraud may have set out initially to break the law. What's more likely is that they became lost in a narcissistic fog in which they imagined that they were above the law -- that the rules no longer applied to people as grand as themselves.

And so, if federal investigators are to be believed, we have seen narcissism on parade in a variety of costumes:

*The Rigases, the authorities say, took out loans to themselves using the company as collateral.

*Samuel D. Waksal, the socialite founder of ImClone Systems, is said to have given his friends and family stock guidance not available to hoi polloi.

*L. Dennis Kozlowski, one of the world's highest-paid executives as chief of Tyco International, had the wherewithal to spend $13 million for paintings by Renoir and others, but not the inclination to pay sales tax on them, according to the grand jury indictment.

*Scott D. Sullivan, the financial architect of WorldCom's wondrous ascent, is accused of buffing the books rather than risk tarnishing his image as a corporate wunderkind.

Narcissism isn't meant here as mere metaphor, but in the sense of the psychiatric personality disorder recognized and classified by the American Psychiatric Association. The condition is named for Narcissus, a beautiful youth in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and then pined away, not realizing the object of his fancy was a mere image. Beyond simple self-regard, the narcissistic disorder refers to a destructive pattern of thought and behavior whose traits include an unrealistic sense of one's importance and power, an excessive need for admiration and a lack of empathy for the feelings or needs of others.

Whether the Rigases or any of the other executives under indictment or investigation would clinically qualify for the narcissistic label, is beside the point: the stock bubble -- in which paper wealth created auras of power and invincibility -- seems to have bred an environment in which the narcissist who may lurk within many of us was able to emerge in feverish full bloom.

''It happens every decade; the proportion of these cases increases during times of market euphoria,'' observed Jay A. Conger. He is a professor at the London Business School and a widely published author on management behavior, whose 1990 article, ''The Dark Side of Leadership,'' is widely cited in the literature of narcissism in the executive suite. (The article's case studies include the rise and fall of the charismatic entrepreneur John Z. DeLorean, whose DeLorean Motor Company's dubious books -- let the record show -- were audited by Arthur Andersen.)

Professor Conger, in an interview, said the ''romance of leadership'' that is common in the business world tends to put top executives on a pedestal.

''This can become a liability if the leaders begin to believe they are geniuses,'' he said, calling Enron a classic example. ''They begin to believe they and their organizations are one-of-a-kind, that they're changing the face of industry. They desire entitlements beyond any other C.E.O.'s.''

And if problems arise -- the debts mount, the revenues fall short of grandiose forecasts -- ''the narcissists want to restore the image, they may do things to protect the image,'' he said. ''And it may not be the C.E.O. who does the unethical things. It may be their subordinates, who want to protect the C.E.O. and themselves, who are in the ecosystem of narcissism.''

Tim Race