The ego of a CEO: Noble Narcissist?

He that is proud eats up himself: pride is
his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle;
and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours
the deed in the praise.

Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida: II, iii

The main task of a CEO is to communicate the essence of a company. Leaders are in a unique position to see the whole elephant and best convey the mission, vision and strategy of the entire company. As leaders, their personal integrity and style is inseparable from that of the company. In their hey-day Jobs embodied Apple; McNealy, Sun; Welch, GE. As with Presidents, Premiers and Prime Ministers, they embody the state — as Louis XIV said: L’État, c’est moi.

I’ve recently come across a series of articles that have me thinking about the challenge CEO’s face in cultivating a healthy ego and the risks for those who run amok in Narcissistic absorption. The articles I read raise questions both for leaders and those who provide communications counsel to them.

It’s All About Me: Narcissistic CEOs and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance

Francesco Guerrera’s insightful article (subscription required) in Saturday’s FT started the ball rolling: Forget the salary packages, look at the size of their egos evaluates Arijit Chatterjee’s and Donald C. Hambrick ‘s Penn State University paper It’s All About Me: Narcissistic CEOs and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance .

The FT article was blogged by none less than Richard Edelman. He makes four great suggestions to achieve balance between ego gratification and self-effacement (dare to win; don’t focus all company communications on the CEO; keep a constant long-term message; partner for success). However, I think he misses the real critique of Narcissistic CEO’s when he takes Guerrera to task for suggesting CEO’s be more bashful. The core issue, especially in fin de siecle economic times, is how an audience can judge the message a leader communications in terms of a balance between individual hubris and real company vision. What will they perceive when he speaks? Guerrera states the dilemma:

The problem is that one man’s egomaniac is another’s visionary and investors
have no way of precisely gauging a CEO’s vision or weighing up their egos.

But there’s a straightforward yardstick by which to understand them. First we must be clear about the myth of Narcissus. I know of no better definition than that offered by Adi Da Samraj on page 94 of The Knee of Listening:

He is the ancient one visible in the Greek myth, who was the universal adored child of the gods, who rejected the loved-one and every form of love and relationship, and who was finally condemned to the contemplation of his own image–until, as a result of his own act and obstinacy, he suffered the fate of eternal separation and died in infinite solitude.

Edelman picked up the clue that the Narcissist avoids relationship. Judging a CEO by how effectively he builds partnerships (with his management team, employees, suppliers and customers) can reveal the extent to which the leader recognizes the contribution others make to the success of the company.

Next, the extent to which the vision and mission of the organization exists independent of the CEO’s ego is simple to determine. Ask how far down the organization the defining vision of the company has percolated? Does the CEO rise to the challenge of internal communications? The guys with the outsized egos often don’t like mixing with the troops. Do they obstinately refuse suggestions they leave the eternal separation of the C-Suite to speak to the cubical crowd? The best won’t miss an opportunity. Hint: Ask how often the CEO eats in the company cafeteria.

Of course, judging a CEO’s effectiveness in terms of the myth of Narcissus is only one way to look at things. Equally rewarding is the well-known concept of the alpha male.

The Alpha Male

The next FT article I came across (I don’t get all my ideas from the FT, just most of the better ones…) was today’s review of the book Alpha Male by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson. This husband and wife team are executive coaches who’ve worked with 1,500 CEO’s. They see the need for those at the top to exhibit confidence and charisma. But they warn:

A great deal of wreckage is caused by boys behaving badly. The healthy ones – well-balanced human beings in full command of their alpha strengths – are natural leaders who are trusted by colleagues, respected by competitors, revered by employees and loved by Wall Street. But other alpha males are risks to their organisations – and sometimes to themselves.

Women CEO’s (like those I profiled here) are not the problem. “Alpha women want to lead, but they don’t necessarily need to rule,” the authors say.

Warning signals to look for in your organization include the way the leader runs meetings (a red flag if they are like an episode of The Apprentice). Beware of a leader who creates a climate of fear and suppresses disagreements and stifles open communication.

There’s more tools available from the authors here.

Alternatives to overblown egos

For every Ted Turner and Dennis Kozlowski (who must appreciate infinite solitude more than most these days) there are plenty of examples of decent CEO’s who don’t confuse their identity with the name on the headquarters building. I came across a couple of articles that showcase the best of the breed – strong leaders who make their biggest impression via bottom-line results.

Jurgen Hambrecht CEO of BASF was profiled in the FT on Monday:

Mr. Hambrecht describes his role as that of a “conductor” who makes existing parts and players cohere, not a composer who makes and sells something new. “A chemical company doesn’t need a pop star boss,” he says. Indeed, there is no apparent flamboyance to Mr. Hambrecht, who turned 60 last week. With a gaunt runner’s physique, he is used to straight talking. . . “You can’t really associate anything BASF has done in the past three years solely with my person,” he says.

Of course, it could be argued that Germany has an extreme aversion to leaders with outsized egos since things went pear-shaped for the last major player on April 30, 1945.

One of the classic case studies in contrasting management styles has to be playing out at Hewlett-Packard.

Management consultant Tony Paradiso cast a critical eye on some outsized ego’s in a recent article. He then observes the stark contrast in style and performance between the current HP CEO and his predecessor:

After ridding themselves of the self-absorb (sic) Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard hired Hurd. That was a priceless decision. Unlike his predecessor, Hurd didn’t feature himself in an advertising campaign. In fact, he purposefully kept a low public relations profile. Silly Mark; instead of directing his PR department to hype his arrival, he simply did his job. That involved laying thousands off and restructuring the company. The result: Exceeding financial expectations for five consecutive quarters.

In Conclusion

My hope is that fewer of the captains of industry will fall prey to the cautions of Agamemnon and more will heed Beatrice’s wisdom:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing: III, i

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Very thoughtful and interesting post. I couldn’t agree more about the distinction between Carly and Mark Hurd. To read more on this, see

I studied with Don Hambrick at Columbia. You will not find a better scholar, consultant, and observer of the executive suite. He’s been speaking out against outstripped corporate egos for 25 years. Thanks.

[…] Finally, I must note that Tim reference’s my August post on CEO’s egos, which is nice. But there’s no link to my blog. Hint to Tim: Add this link: […]

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