When you finally become a CEO, you’re a symbol, with everybody in the organization looking at you. Your natural narcissism is combined with being in a top position, and before you know it, you live in a hall of mirrors. People always agree with you. You see what you want to see. It’s very difficult to resist becoming grandiose. And suddenly you’re finished. You lose the ability to realize your ambitions for the company.
Alexander the Great, for example, was somewhat of a participative manager in his early life. He got his key people — his “companions,” as they were known — very much involved in decision making. But as he entered his late 20s, he started to believe that he was a god. That was the end of his participative management period. Because he died so young, we will never really know how he would have ended up.
The Romans understood the danger of excessive narcissism. When a conquering general entered Rome in a chariot, by custom, there was often a slave behind him in the chariot, whispering in his ear, “You’re human, Caesar. You’re human, Caesar.” Of course, many of them didn’t take this lesson to heart.
It’s still very hard for senior executives to get frank feedback — or to welcome it. I worked with a corporate leader from the Caucasus who got a perfect score in his subordinates’ appraisals of him. They said he was a great manager. Then I found out that he had handed out the feedback forms to his subordinates with their names printed on them, and said, “Bring these back to my office.” This case may be extreme, but that’s the kind of feedback that many leaders get. There’s the famous scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 where Lieutenant Scheisskopf says, “I’ll be grateful to the man who tells me the truth,” and then court-martials the one person who dares to speak up.
Workplaces with Authenticity
S+B: Do all companies breed narcissism in this way?
KETS de VRIES: No. Some companies are what I call “authentizotic,” meaning that people are attracted to work for them. They are the best places to work. [The word authentizotic is derived from the Greek authentikos, meaning authentic, and zotikos, meaning vital to life.] These organizations cultivate three major values. The first is a sense of meaning: People feel they do something substantial. For instance, Novo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical manufacturer, is in the insulin business. People are not likely to go on strike there because they know what will happen to their customers. Another example is the National Australia Bank. It was originally a farmers’ bank, and senior executives in this company pride themselves that very few farmers went bankrupt during the recent financial crisis. They are in for the long haul.
The second value is a feeling of being a family. Take W.L. Gore, which is probably one of the most creative companies in America. The family ethos is very important in this firm. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group works the same way. He has gone to great lengths to maintain this family feeling. He used to say, “When there are more than 100 people in the building, split.”
Then there is the quality of fun, or enjoyment, in the work itself. There is a very close relationship between play and creativity. The amount of fun and enjoyment that exists in a workplace can reflect how diverse teams are, the role of women, and the way teams work. There is a strong relationship between diversity — in terms of gender, culture, age, and background — and creativity.