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Twenty years ago the accumulation of skills, knowledge and experience (‘horizontal development’) was sufficient for business success. Today, it’s not. 4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development, offers a new approach of ‘vertical development’.See Other Books
There was a compelling piece in the FT recently by Naomi Shragai detailing the challenges of dealing with a narcissistic CEO or boss. Most senior executives are all too familiar with the charismatic, colourful charmer who is aggressive, controlling, status conscious, self-obsessed and volatile. However, their passion, ambition and intensity serve them well and many make it to top table of our multi-nationals.
My problem is labelling such individuals as ‘narcissists’. Narcissism is seen as a personality trait and thus it is believed to be highly resistant to change. And therein lies the problem.
In fact the article quotes experts from New York to Leicester to support the idea of the intransigence of the ‘narcissist’ to change. Our experience disputes this notion. We believe such CEOs can change, particularly if they are not labelled as narcissists. Labelling or describing certain aspects of a leader’s personality is entertaining, often very interesting but ultimately unhelpful for the very reason that it is ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘developmental’.
It is of course possible to describe leaders in millions of different ways but in our view the tendency to describe a leader along any of the personality dimensions can block any potential for change. We believe it is much more helpful to measure their level of vertical development along the key lines of development that are known to impact business performance.
The leaders that Shragai is describing come with a set of clearly defined values, have reached a specific stage of ego maturity and operate with a certain levels of emotional and social intelligence. All of these qualities are amenable to development. Such individuals are often extremely effective at driving a business forward and delivering the profits demanded by shareholders. However, like anyone, not just ‘narcissists’, their negative characteristics can become a liability. For example, ‘narcissists’ tend to bet big and be resistant to guidance on the big points.
It’s important to acknowledge that while change is possible for all leaders, not all leaders are equally amenable to development. Classically those at the ‘expert’ level of ego maturity, and who also operating from the red ‘power’ value system (in spiral dynamics terms), with little tendency for self-reflection are the most resistant to change. For example, I remember one extremely well known CEO telling me “I don’t really want to understand why I am so brilliant, because if I did I might lose it”. In fact, I have lost count of the number of ‘power-expert’ CEOs and senior leaders who have resisted or flatly refused help after I suggested they would fail if they did not open up to some quality coaching. And then I watched them, within weeks of this conversation, derail and get fired, despite their apparent brilliance.
You could characterise the outliers in this ‘power-expert’ population as ‘narcissists’ but as we have said this blocks change rather than helps it.
Developing leaders out of the ‘power-expert’ level is certainly not easy and it is often beyond the capability of all but the most brilliant coaches. Part of the problem is such leaders believe their expertise extends to all areas. These leaders are normally extremely technically skilled in one or two area of competence, be it finance, marketing, the law or operations but such is their self-belief that they think they can do it all.
Coaching the development of ‘power-expert’ leaders is extremely tricky. The traditional coaching approach, which focuses on their commercial goals, key metrics or strategy, simply reinforces the problem. Even trying to raise their awareness of how their unhelpful behaviours can derail them is insufficient. Such coaching input is autopoetic and often just reinforces their ‘stuckness’.
What the leaders actually require is high quality development not more knowledge or skills training. But since most coaches, executives or HR professionals don’t differentiate mainstream coaching from developmental coaching their attempts to change these ‘narcissistic’ CEOs often fail. This reinforces the view that this population are ‘uncoachable’.
Quality developmental coaching requires an understanding of the stages of adult development. Leaders described as ‘narcissists’ are simply at a certain stage of development in their values, maturity, emotional intelligence and cognitive sophistication. Being able to accurately diagnose exactly which stage they are at, which is what we have been doing with leaders for the last ten years, is the first step in being able to help them realise their true potential.
What is really required is to harness their excellent qualities such as ambition, focus determination and passion and then ‘upgrade their internal operating system’ by developing them as people. Such development unlocks a whole range of new capabilities. With these new capabilities these CEOs and leaders start to make much more effective decisions that benefit the many not just themselves, building longer-term sustainable performance. In short they cease to be ‘narcissists’ and start to achieve their real potential as leaders and as human beings.