The great accomplishment of [Steve] Jobs's life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies - his petulance, his narcissism, and his rudeness - in the service of perfection. ~ Malcolm Gladwell
Like it or not, we are in the midst of great social, economic and political upheaval. The way we live and work has changed tremendously in the last 10 years, and it’s likely to be radically different in another decade.
There’s a case to be made for narcissistic CEOs who can lead companies to greatness, inspire followers and achieve game-changing solutions in our rapidly changing world. In the words of Michael Maccoby, author of Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails: “It is narcissistic leaders who take us to places we’ve never been before, who innovate, who build empires out of nothing.”
Conservative leadership, focusing on what works now, can negatively impact the technological and social advances required over the next 20 years. Given the huge social and economic stakes, there’s an urgent need to understand leaders’ personality types—particularly, the promise and peril of radical, visionary leadership. When does visionary leadership veer off into unproductive narcissism?
Narcissists can be honest or crooked, brilliant or ordinary, wise or foolish. The label is often misused and misunderstood, and it’s usually applied in a negative context. Consider this: Narcissists can be passionately bold visionaries, highly capable of persuading others to embrace the value of their ideas.
Think of Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Herb Kelleher, the flamboyant self-promoter who built Southwest Airlines. These leaders developed disciplined management styles by partnering with operational managers who implemented their strategies.
These visionary leaders (and others who succeed as productive narcissists) are strategically intelligent. It’s not enough to be a creative genius with media-worthy new ideas.
Building an innovative organization requires leaders who know how to motivate talented and ethical people within a socioeconomic system that creates value for customers, employees and owners.
Many companies, even those known for innovation, don’t want to hire narcissists. No matter how much their leaders boast of encouraging independent thinking and creativity, many businesses have little tolerance for true originals or mavericks. They prefer the obsessive type who is driven to please and enforces company rules.
Too often, promotions are in short supply for high-performing, creative visionaries who aren’t “team players.” Indeed, most narcissists don’t “play well with others” — unless, that is, they have strategic intelligence and pay close attention to the crucial requirements for leading a company to sustainable success.
Five Elements of Strategic Intelligence
According to Maccoby, visionary leaders succeed because they have mastered five elements of strategic intelligence:
Leaders anticipate how current movements, ideas and forces will play out in the short and long terms. They can identify evolving products, services, technology systems, global gaps, competitors, and customer needs and values.
Foresight is more complex than extrapolating today’s market into the future. The dot-com bust between 1995 and 2000 is a perfect example of the difference between foresight and extrapolation. Aspiring entrepreneurs came up with ways to make it big on the Internet. They asked, “How do I capitalize on what already exists?”
Foresight would have required them to ask, “How do we capitalize on what doesn’t exist now but will in the future?”
2. Systems Thinking
Visionary leaders understand how disparate parts influence the whole. They synthesize and integrate various elements to build and maintain healthy systems.
Those who want to lead companies in new directions must have competency in systems thinking, as well as the other interdependent elements of strategic intelligence.
Foresight and systems thinking are pure intelligence skills. The other components of strategic intelligence—visioning, motivating and partnering—are real-world skills, sometimes referred to as “street smarts.”
Visioning combines foresight and systems thinking into a realistic view of business goals. In some companies (IBM, GE), visionary leaders have had the foresight to shift from selling products to selling solutions in a knowledge/service economy.
Motivating is the most misunderstood and elusive element of strategic intelligence. It’s one thing to talk up a storm about how a corporate initiative designed to improve sales will help you crush the competition. It’s quite another to grasp the importance of “soft” skills like influencing others.
Motivating is difficult because it involves the messy work of igniting people’s passions so they’ll carry out your vision. A business model that neglects human motivations won’t get the buy-in needed to make your vision a reality.
Partnering is the ability to forge key strategic alliances. It’s different than making friends; a leader with strategic intelligence makes allies. You need to understand how each alliance fits into your corporate vision.
Partnering is the opposite of acquiring companies to bolster overall financial holdings. Leaders who operate in this fashion are merely “serial acquirers.” You must learn how to partner internally (with advisers who complement your personality) and externally (with companies that add value rather than size).
There is no established measurement tool for strategic intelligence. In Narcissistic Leaders, Maccoby offers several questions that can help you self-assess your abilities.
The real test of a leader’s strategic intelligence is in the workplace:
- Foresight: How well do you stay abreast of marketplace trends? Do you excel at imagining new products, services and paradigms for the future?
- Systems Thinking: Do you think in terms of systems, synthesizing and integrating feedback and hard-to-imagine possibilities?
- Visioning: How well can you take an idea and translate it into a workable vision with measurable goals?
- Motivating: Do you inspire others to buy into your vision and execute your ideas?
- Partnering: How well do you forge strategic alliances, both internally and externally? Do you recognize that alliances are two-way streets and encourage collaboration?
Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development to grow visionary leaders? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to inspire others? Enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a visionary leader?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching as part of their peak performance leadership development program.
Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help you become a visionary leader. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company.
About Dr. Maynard Brusman
Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders. Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.