“Narcissistic tyrants have long dominated the corporate world”: Why @NickCohen4 piece in The Observer (5 Jan) is a must read for #CEOs


Nick Cohen’s piece in The Observer (Jan 5) was mainly about Mr Trump but, to my mind, was also one of the best general essays on leadership I have read.

A flavour of the piece: “No one in the West has seen Trump’s kind of triumph…But look around your workplace…little Hitlers…They exhibit all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder…less likely to engage in the hard work of innovating…”

The core of his premise is that “compulsive liars can create compulsive believers”. Their peers “believe the stories,” these leaders tell about themselves.

This is all true but I part company with Nick Cohen in one respect: I believe narcissism is on a spectrum and is not a fixed point.

“People are on a continuum — there’s a range of narcissism,” W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, explains in a HuffPost piece. “Most people are sort of in the middle, though some are more extreme than others.”

In my programmes, I won’t deal with those on the extreme. I can’t fix them. But Boards whose membership includes those around the middle can respond well to exhortations to make small changes in their behaviour.

One of their key traits is that they make everything personal. “If you do something to [the narcissist] that he doesn’t like, it means you’re against him, or you don’t understand him” explains Zlatan Krizan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University in the same HuffPost article.

My advice to board members who are struggling to deal with someone behaving like this is to refer every issue back to organisational purpose.

Instead of falling into the trap of constantly flattering them and feeding their narcissism it’s best to appeal to their sense of shared purpose if they have one. If they haven’t then you have a case to oust them, if you can muster the support to do so. Usually commercial self-interest will force directors to come together to face down a tyrant.

But it doesn’t have to get to that stage, and I propose you use three steps in arguing your case:

Step 1: Frame your challenge to the leader regarding wider purpose: “Do you still agree that our organisational purpose is x and our strategy for achieving it is y? They will struggle to push back on this without looking stupid and are likely to agree.

Step 2: “If our strategy is y then do you agree that our behaviour, in broad terms, to implement it should be z?” If you keep your description of the desired behaviour unthreatening in tone, they are likely to agree, and if they don’t, then you can legitimately challenge their logic.

Step 3: This is the tricky step: “Since you agree to purpose X, strategy Y and behaviour z can you see why those of us, including you, who behave contrary to that agreed target operating model need to amend that behaviour?
I agree that this is like walking on eggshells but many clients I meet spend many exasperating hours doing precisely that.

It’s no way to live. Nick Cohen believes that the solution to dealing with narcissistic people is to work hard on converting the people who support them. Once they are starved of that attention only the seriously ill will resist. And in that instance, you have a choice to quit and find someone less damaged with whom you can work and find fulfilment. Life is too short not to.

Ciaran Fenton

February 2017


For more information on my behavioural change programmes see my website , call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335 or fill in the form below and I will be in touch shortly.

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