Book Review: The Productive Narcissist

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The Productive Narcissist

by Michael Maccoby
Broadway Books
298 pages

The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership

Narcissism is not necessarily a negative character trait for modern leaders to display, according to Michael Maccoby, an internationally known psychoanalyst, anthropologist and consultant. In The Productive Narcissist, Maccoby cites Oprah Winfrey, Jack Welch and Bill Gates as prime examples of modern leaders who share enormous success as well as narcissistic tendencies. These are not consensus-building bureaucrats, he writes; they are productive narcissists who embody “strategic intelligence,” which is a powerful blend of foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating and partnering. Other strengths of the productive narcissist include charisma, voracious learning, perseverance, alertness to threats, and a sense of humor.

Times of Rapid Change

When Maccoby calls these people narcissists, he is not referring to the negative stereotype of the pathologically self-absorbed person who destroys himself with his preoccupation with himself. Instead, he writes that a productive narcissist is someone with the personality type who is best suited to lead in times of rapid social and economic change. He also warns narcissistic leaders that they must also embody strategic intelligence if they want to succeed as leaders. Otherwise, they could stumble and fail due to their weaknesses, which can include extreme sensitivity to criticism, not listening, paranoia, extreme competitiveness, and anger.

According to Maccoby, a leader’s personality plays a crucial role in the workplace, and he describes how narcissists have always emerged throughout history to inspire people and shape the future. He also uses historical examples to demonstrate how narcissists can be destructive when they become unrealistic dreamers and harbor the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success.

Unbridled Grandiosity

Maccoby points to former CEOs Jean-Marie Messier (Vivendi), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), and Joe Nacchio (Bertelsmann) as examples of leaders whose narcissism was overcome by the negative traits that often accompany narcissistic personalities: oversensitivity to criticism, failure to listen to anyone, a tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying, and unbridled grandiosity. He writes that this grandiosity often rears its ugly head when CEOs force their corporations into continual growth, acquiring more and more companies instead of creating value with new products and services. What they needed, Maccoby explains, was strategic intelligence.

In an effort to help leaders become productive narcissists, Maccoby offers them examples of the key qualities that make up strategic intelligence. To demonstrate how many great leaders’ careers fly in the face of much of popular business literature today, he cites the works of Jim Collins, Stephen Covey and Daniel Goleman.

Maccoby points to Jack Welch as an example of a leader who did not embody the “emotional intelligence” that Goleman writes about, and the “empathic listening” that Covey says is crucial to success. Jack Welch, he explains, was able to succeed at General Electric, and create more wealth for its shareholders than any other company between 1996 and 2001, while overreacting emotionally and exhibiting the narcissistic arrogance others say is out of step with success.

The Myth of Abraham Lincoln

Maccoby also takes issue with Collins’ example of Abraham Lincoln as a “Level 5” executive who he says was quiet, humble, modest, and reserved, among other traits. Maccoby explains that his contemporaries actually described Lincoln as extremely ambitious, charismatic, a big personality, and aggressive about his career, which made him more of a productive narcissist.

Along with describing what productive narcissists have done to succeed, he also explains what others can do to work more effectively with them. These actions are:

• Know yourself and your type.

• Acquire deep knowledge in your field.

• Learn how to partner effectively.

• Don’t invest your own ego.

• Protect the narcissist’s image. ~

Why We Like This Book

In The Productive Narcissist, Maccoby develops an eye-opening theory about how leaders succeed, but also debunks many other theories along the way with his years ofresearch and experience as a CEO consultant. His focus on the visionary aspect of great leaders and CEOs adds important food for thought to the debate about what makes a leader great. His practical advice about how to recognize productive narcissists and work with their unique personality traits offers those who want to have better relationships with their leaders ways they can be more successful and productive, and adds new understanding to the field of leadership.

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