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June, 2011 Newsletter

Men Behaving Badly:  Leadership Lessons from the Recently Fallen


These days the list keeps on getting longer: Arnold Schwartzenegger, Dominique Strauss Kahn, and now Anthony Weiner. Although all three cases involve some variant on sexual impropriety, the superficial reaction to this is What were they thinking?!  But on a deeper level they all have other aspects in common, namely personality flaws.


Most of the leadership literature has not focused on leadership derailment, but leadership effectiveness. The landmark work on leadership derailment by McCall and Lombardo (1983) has been more or less replicated over the decades culminating in the seminal work by Robert Hogan and his colleagues (2011) on measuring the dark side of personality.


There is a difference in leaders derailing from a career path and the epic failure and downfall of high profile political and business leaders. The latter tends to fall because of some deep seeded personality defects.  These recent news events reminded me of the classic Harvard Business Review article by Michael Maccoby (2000) on narcissistic leaders and is worth repeating here.


Maccoby posits that the narcissism enable or disable leadership effectiveness. Narcissistic leaders are aggressively strive for achievement, are independent and set themselves apart from their team, and are strongly motivated by achieving power and public recognition.  These characteristics can be productive in creating great innovators and business leaders. But they also, if gone unchecked and balanced create an isolated person that is out of step with reality.


The unproductive side of narcissism manifests itself in such behaviors as (1) selecting only confirmatory information to ones attitudes and behavior, (2) telling others what do rather than listening to others, (3) denying criticisms from others, (4) not interested in learning new behaviors and wanting to change. In short, narcissists have a low level of self-awareness and even if they do know the impact of their actions on others, choose to justify why they behave this way.


Turning around a true narcissist is a difficult task. If a leader is too extreme in unproductive narcissism, then suggesting change may not be enough to start the leader on a different path. I may take a catastrophic event to initiate the change process.  Falling from grace in a very public manner is often what it takes to break through this low self-awareness barrier. We see this taking place now with some of these public figures. It reminds me of the riddle of How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?— One, but the light bulb must really want to change.


Here are some ways that leaders can help avoid the dark side of narcissism:

·      Understand your level of unproductive and harmful personality characteristics and behavior patterns.

·      Find a trusted person who can be candid about the realities of your dysfunctional behavior.  This maybe a spouse, friend, elative or a trusted colleague.

·      Go beyond the use of executive coach and seek some professional help from a therapist.




Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2011). Management derailment. In S. Zedeck, S. Zedeck (Eds.) , APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 3: Maintaining, expanding, and contracting the organization (pp. 555-575). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.


Maccoby, M. (2000) Narcissistic leaders: the incredible pros, the inevitable cons.  Harvard Business Review 78 (1), 68-78.


McCall, M. W. Jr., & Lombardo, M. M. (1983). Off the track: Why and how successful executives get derailed. Technical Report No. 21. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.