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Leadership and the Word "I"

July 3, 2010
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See full size imageHave you ever interviewed a candidate and noticed how many times he/she used the word ‘I”? It tells a story and should give you a glimpse into their true DNA and their ego. This can be very damaging to your culture and your team.

In almost every case when I interview candidates’ and hear “I” over and over I usually head for the exit and try to end the interview. It’s just too painful and trust me “I’ve seen this movie before” and can tell you exactly how it will end. One of the telling things for me is the use of “I” screams that it really is all about them. Always! I look for words like “We” or “Team” or other words that convey a non self-serving message. Companies win or lose based on the way teams works together to accomplish their goals and overcome their adversities. Leaders win because they know how to motivate a team and get the most out of their people.

Teams can accomplish anything they believe they can regardless of the challenge. Most great leaders figured that out a long time ago. Narcissists accomplish very little as leaders. What’s more troubling to me is that they just “don’t get it”. You see the world is supposed to work “their” way because that’s the way they think. Sad. Very sad…

In the end they will never win.

Let’s face it – nobody wants to follow a leader when their favorite word is “I”.



There's a useful distinction here about narcissism. A psychiatrist friend calls that distinction Character Construction, and would term what you are describing as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). You're right. NPD is a real disorder. 

An executive needs to have the character construction to have the narcissistic visionary perspective in one's head.  But, it has to be one of several frames of reference.  And, the executive needs to have that character construction that allows her to not actually speak to it, as in "me, me, me" out loud.  That is a necessary talent.   A talent to hire for.

Here's the low down on NPD: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder

ICD-10 F60.8
ICD-9 301.81
MeSH D010554

In contrast, great executives need enough of a narcissistic talent to create clarity on a compelling vision, clarity on current state, and clarity on the options to move from one to the other. In this sense, narcissism in executive management refers to the ability to effectively vision.

Effective Narcissism in Business

The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership [Hardcover Book]

Michael Maccoby


Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

If you're leading a corporation, argues Maccoby, narcissism is good.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


“Maccoby makes a compelling case that the most effective leaders in times of disruptive change are those with the personality type that Freud called narcissistic.” –Harvard Business Review

“The implications here are not only relevant but should have a sense of urgency for all leaders.” –Houston Chronicle

See the link in my earlier comment for links to the free, Harvard Business Review article on Narcissistic Leadership by the same author.  Maccoby has been studying and writing on this topic for 30+ years, starting with my earlier employer, Hewlett-Packard, and extending the discussion to Gates, Jobs, Welsh, and many others.  Narcissism is vital, ... in context of other talents.

Steve Jobs' keynotes are a great example of doing this well.  He always says "We" and never "I."

For more on this issue of self-awareness and it's relationship to better leadership, I would highly recommend Patrick Lencioni's new book, Getting Naked: Typical of Lencioni, he uses a fable. In that fable, he describes what's going on in the head of the lead characters, and contrasts that to what he says out loud.  My current boss recommended the book.  I've read it and highly agree.

Lencioni outlines the need to:
1. Let go of the fear of losing (business)
2. Let go of the fear of being embarrassed
3. Let go of the fear of feeling inferior  ---> this may be impossible for the NPD.

To wrap up on your theme, I'd like my executive search professionals to size up both dimensions of Narcissism:
1) visioning and
2) demonstrated empathy (or lack thereof), necessary for effective leadership, team building and one-on-one personal relationships.  The latter are critical to coaching and feedback.  Folks with NPD are not effective at that.  I do appreciate my search professionals weeding out those NPDs !  And, recognizing that the most effective and productive executives use their own narcissism for the good of their organizations!

Thanks Tim, for raising this topic to the level of explicit discussion, and asking for the elaboration.

Secret Sauce of Leadership.

Whenever I mention that my team was invited to read a short reading list by our leader (of just a few months), the response has been strikingly consistent.

With a very sober tone, I've been asked to share that list. The list contains several by Pat Lencioni, referenced above. It's worth calling out one other book in comment to your post, Tim.

The book, First, Break All the Rules, makes a point to distinguish what they call talent from skills and knowledge.

Great managers define talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied”, or behavior one finds oneself doing often. The key to excellent performance is matching the right talent with the role to be played.

In contrast to skills and knowledge, talent generally cannot be taught.  And, it must be used as a determinate in hiring.

The NPD and other energy-depleting or defocusing talents must be identified and dealt with as talents.  At the most basic level, that means dont try to fix the person.  So, Tim, Marcus Buckingham would agree with your conclusion.  Cast a role for the necessary talents; kindly walk away from those whose talents are ill-fit for the role. 

We love your posts. We often feel like we know exactly how energy-depleting your last call was!

At the candidate phase, it's all about fit between the candidate and the company and role with the need. Your post was a good reminder to all of us that retained search firms have to talk to a lot of folks before they offer us the panel of "all winners." Thanks for that.

When I saw your link to Narcissists, it reminded me of my post from a year ago which you kindly commented on, here.

The interesting thing about organizational narcissism is that it's always maladaptive. In contrast, it is possible to have productive narcissists, it just requires a non-narcissistic partner.

Is that your experience as well?


OUCH! The truth (really) hurts!!!
I guess I am not convinced that narcissism works in any environment - in a leadership role. There are too many things wrong with building productive high-performing teams when the leader's favorite word is "I". Just my humble opinion.

Thanks again Joe. The only feedback I have about Mr Buckingham's point is that I would RUN not walk!


You nailed it once again! In my practice the general reaction to candidates that display narcissism characteristics in an interview or thru the reference checking process is usually quite negative. What you see is sort of what you get and it's hard to change people with this type of personality (or lack thereof). I usually move on (seriously).

The reviews you provided our readership are quite relevant for this topic - and for me! Thanks for all of the feedback and content!