You want a story of CEO power? The kind of CEO who ends up with his picture on the cover of every business magazine and who gets celebrated for his strategic brilliance and financial performance? The kind of CEO who’s never held accountable for how he runs his company? The kind of CEO who’s responsible for the train wreck that’s undermining any confidence we used to have in corporate America? Here’s the story, a true fable, told to me by a person who knows.
“I heard about it in the early 1990s,” my confidant says, “from the COO, a straight arrow if ever there was one. The CEO of his company — you probably own the stock, and probably so did your father — is traveling with this COO to a meeting in Paris. Two flight attendants fuss over them, and when they land, the CEO invites them to his hotel for drinks. ‘Which one do you want?’ he asks his COO. ‘Neither,’ the COO replies. ‘I’m happily married.’ He wonders if that’s the right answer, given that the CEO has recently remarried. The CEO’s suite is at the top of the George V. He goes to draw a bath so that he and his guests can freshen up but gets distracted by the flight attendants, who are giggling in the bedroom. The tub, abandoned for hours, overflows, and the ceiling in the room below crashes to the floor in the middle of the night. But this is the George V, a hotel accustomed to the ways of the rich and infamous, so no one says a word. When the CEO and COO check out a few days later, the hotel discreetly hands the CEO a bill for the repairs. The CEO passes the bill to the COO and says, ‘Take care of this.’ The COO notices that the repairs equal his annual salary. He hands the bill back to his boss. ‘The company can’t take care of this,’ he says. When he arrives back in his New York office, the COO finds an envelope waiting for him, much like the one he’d been handed in Paris. Inside is a copy of the bill, with a note telling him that he’s been fired. His successor’s first job: Take care of the hotel bill.”
This is not a story about CEO sex, or “boys will be boys,” or even the misuse of company funds. This is a story about executive narcissism, the dark side of corporate leaders. Executive narcissism is the story behind the story at Enron, WorldCom, and every other highflier turned skid mark. The only question is, Why is narcissism still such an effective power strategy?
Here’s the working definition of executive narcissists: They do the boozing, and you get the headache. Write that down, and put it in your billfold. Read it the next time you get a call from Bernie or Martha, Dennis or Jeff, Jack or even old William Jefferson — or any other presumed hero. These are America’s leading narcissists. They never say thank you, and they use people like Kleenex.
Even worse, the way that these narcissists treat people in their own organizations is a prescription for personal disaster. Rick Smith knows firsthand. As a co – managing director for the executive recruiter Spencer Stuart and coauthor of the forthcoming book The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers (Crown Business, 2003), Smith has seen his share of narcissistic CEOs — and the impact that they have on the lives of others. “A narcissistic boss is the most dangerous,” Smith says. “Narcissists seduce people into believing that they’ll be a success and that they can ride their coattails. Narcissists are self-confident, vocal, and alluring individuals. But they don’t share their success. What’s more, they don’t have a lot of substance. They make a lot of decisions, but it’s rare that they make the very best decisions. Over time, this catches up with them. If you work with a narcissist, you think that you have to give up control in order to share in his success. So you don’t get to develop yourself. You end up with golden handcuffs: Because of your investment and the narcissist’s apparent success, it’s hard to leave. When that success disappears, you’re left with nothing.”
Why do narcissistic leaders rise to the top? They succeed, Smith says, “when growth and success happen disproportionately fast. In the more sober business environments, success takes longer to happen, so your success is going to be based more on your performance than on promises.” But as we’ve seen, what goes up disproportionately fast comes crashing down just as fast.
The financial losses may actually amount to less than the human losses. I know one New York therapist who used to treat narcissists, but gave up on them because they never listened to criticism. His real practice is to treat the people who work for narcissists.
For some of these victims, he prescribes watches. “They vibrate every five minutes to remind the wearer to breathe,” he says. “People who’ve been exposed to narcissists forget to breathe. They tighten up as if they’re putting on armor to protect themselves against the psychic blows. Narcissists always remind you of how great they are and, comparatively, how weak you are. Psychically, it hurts to be around them.”
Is there an alternative? Or are we doomed to endless cycles of build-and-burn narcissists who seduce us into their ranks, only to drive themselves, their companies — and us — into a ditch? According to Smith, the answer is in leaders one might describe as “peer plus one.”
“Executives can have strong egos and not be narcissists at all,” Smith says. “Michael Dell, for example, brought in a strong board. Bill Gates had an office of the president, which consisted of four people sharing the power. Successful people do have strong egos. But those who succeed over the long haul delegate and create a team of peers. Ultimately, you can’t succeed by yourself. You just burn out.” Or crash through to the room below you.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Find her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany.com/keyword/rubin).