Narcissism and the dark side of leadership

What causes upright managers to turn into corrupt fraudsters?

At the WU Executive Academy’s MBA Alumni Lounge, leadership expert and WU Vienna professor Günter Stahl and Stephan Doering, Head of the Medical University of Vienna’s Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, directed the spotlight on the dark side of leadership.

John Thain, the former CEO of Merryll Lynch, spent approximately USD 1.2 million on renovating his office – in the midst of the economic crisis. Richard Fuld, the then CEO of Lehman Brothers, stated publicly that he would take the troubled bank to new heights once the crisis was over. Three days later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.

Both cases are examples of irresponsible management behavior – and harmful narcissism. “Narcissism and the dark side of leadership” was the theme of the MBA Alumni Lounge that the WU Executive Academy had organized for its MBA graduates in collaboration with Brenner&Company, a management consultancy. In the course of the event, Günter Stahl, Professor of International Management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and Stephan Doering, Head of the Medical University of Vienna’s Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, gave a lecture investigating narcissism among executives.

According to Günter Stahl, who carried out a large-scale study with his team of researchers to find out more about narcissistic and psychopathic traits among CEOs, a certain degree of narcissism is healthy and indispensable for executives: “We expect executives to be self-confident, persuasive and assertive.” However, excessive narcissism might have negative repercussions, Prof. Stahl warned.

Moreover, he pointed out that examples of outstandingly successful leaders such as Steve Jobs would cause our expectations to become more one-sided: “We all want charismatic leaders,” he said, “but the other side of the coin is that such leaders often tend to be narcissists.” And charisma and narcissism make for a toxic combination, as Prof. Stahl noted, saying “these managers manipulate others and harm them in order to achieve their goals.” That said, he added that many great leaders were rather ordinary people.