Ever since reading the biography of Steve Jobs, I’ve been confused about what appears to be conflicting leadership principles. Jobs didn’t seem to have any of the ideal leadership qualities espoused by Jim Collins or Daniel Goleman.
He wasn’t a Level 5 leader, or a servant leader, nor did he have much emotional intelligence. His idiosyncrasies and his reputation as a petulant narcissist were legendary. And yet, many proclaimed he was a leadership genius. He led companies to success (Apple, Pixar) with game-changing products.
So what leadership principles explain his success? I think I’ve found the answer: He was a narcissistic leader, and in periods of rapid innovation, that’s what’s needed. Not all narcissism is bad. Many of today’s stellar leaders have healthy doses of what author Michael Maccoby calls “productive narcissism,” combined with strategic intelligence.
“All people, especially leaders, need a healthy dose of narcissism…it’s the engine that drives leadership.” ~ Manfred Kets de Vries
While some thought leaders claim that sustained business success depends on bold innovators, many caution against celebrity CEOs, given that some of them have led Enron- and Tyco-type scams. Some boards prefer turning to CEOs who are by-the-numbers type personalities.
Obsessive business leaders excel at cutting costs, culling nonperformers from the pack, and implementing the right processes and systems. On the other hand, productive narcissists want to create new games, changing the way we live and work. Which approach is better for leading your company?
The answer depends on the context.
I think that at this time in history, we need creative energy and passion more than ever before. According to Michael Maccoby, author of Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails, what differentiates the more successful visionary leaders from the failures is strategic intelligence.
Think of Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Herb Kelleher, the flamboyant self-promoter who built Southwest Airlines. These leaders developed disciplined management styles by partnering with operational managers who implemented their strategies. It’s not enough to be a creative genius with media-worthy new ideas.
Building an innovative organization requires leaders who know how to motivate talented and ethical people within a socioeconomic system that creates value for customers, employees and owners.
The problem is, however, many companies, even those known for innovation, don’t want to hire or promote narcissists. No matter how much their leaders boast of encouraging independent thinking and creativity, many businesses have little tolerance for true originals or mavericks. They prefer the obsessive type who is driven to please and enforces company rules.
I believe that with executive coaching, some creative visionaries can learn what’s needed to navigate career success, including developing their strategic intelligence. What do you think?
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