The more I read of Andy Hines’ post on “Some thoughts on narcissistic leaders,” the more I smiled at what he was writing, and started thinking of connections between leadership, values, personality and generations. Andy is a Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence at the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in Futures Studies, and is the author of ConsumerShift, which focuses on values as a key driver of modern leadership. He was asked by a student in his program to look at an alternative to his book by Michael Maccoby call Narcissist Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. You could almost feel him cringe when he writes out the definition of narcissist, and how closely it fell in line with what his program was teaching.

First, a narcissist is “the kind of person who (1) doesn’t listen to anyone else when he believes in doing something and (2) has a precise vision of how things should be.” (p.9) Yikes, that’s not exactly the message we want to send to our students. 

Andy quickly starts pointing out the differences between his program and the definition of a narcissist, but also steps back to openly wonder if does take “someone with a narcissistic personality to stand firm with their vision in the face of detractors holding on to the status quo.” He acknowledges that approach may be very successful when push comes to shove, but he expands upon that thought and asks “whether this is the only way to do so – can one stand firm and be a non-narcissist?”

Narcissistic leaders can be very effective in implementing change in the face of resistance to change. Much like Stalin taking a ruler and drawing a straight line across a map and telling his railway engineers that this is the route of the Northern Trans-Siberian Railway, narcissists can be very good at getting everyone to fall in line and reject the status quo, but such rigid approaches can be disastrous in the long run. So what alternatives does Andy have for us in a modern and postmodern organization? Simple, place leadership values over personality.

I would put greater emphasis on the values of the leader as a key driver of their goals and style, with personality a secondary influence… I think it is valuable to look at issues from different “centers,” whether values, personality, generations – though I still come out with the view that values makes the most sense at the center.

Andy points out that the narcissist still has some shelf life, even (or maybe especially) with Gen Y’s. My take away from Andy’s post is that it seems that today’s (and perhaps even tomorrow’s) leadership strategy focuses on challenging the status quo without immediately rejecting it, and on having a determined vision of how things should be without being solidly locked in to that vision when alternatives arise. And, if that still doesn’t work, then pull out your inner-narcissist.