Are Founders Productive Narcissists?

Written by Dave Bailey

Barack Obama and Donald Trump

We all have narcissistic tendencies, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some narcissistic traits — such as having a clear vision or the ability to attract others — may make you a better leader. But there are plenty of similar characteristics that can make you unbearable.

Founders — and many of their investors — are likely to place highly on the narcissist spectrum, along with many of our great leaders, like Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, and even Gandhi.

Narcissistic leaders

In his documentary, DICKS: Do you need to be one to be a successful leader?, Max Joseph interviews leadership expert Michael Maccoby about the pros and cons of narcissism, concluding that:

Narcissists reject the world as it is and instead have a vision of how it should be.

The most common traits of narcissists include undeniable charisma, unshakeable conviction, a habit of listening only to themselves, mild paranoia, an over-controlling nature, lack of empathy, and even occasional cruelty — not because they want to be cruel, but simply in relentless pursuit of their vision.

Maybe a few of these sound familiar.

In his extended essay, ‘Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons’, Michael Maccoby describes the behaviours of both productive and unproductive narcissists.

Productive narcissists tend to show the following leadership qualities. Usually, they:

  • Have compelling visions
  • Are driven to change the world
  • Can easily attract a following
  • Are willing to take risks
  • Ask critical questions
  • Pursue aggressive goals
  • Change the rules of the game
  • Make bold decisions
  • Have street-smarts

However, narcissists often have unproductive traits too. They may:

  • Ignore their team’s concerns
  • Show extreme sensitivity to criticism
  • Over-value their own ideas and not seek opposing ones
  • Not work through their own issues (or even recognise them)
  • Isolate themselves from others
  • Place unpredictable bets when they’re self-assured
  • Lose their temper when they’re stressed
  • Become dependent on their followers
  • Not seek out mentors
  • Be over-competitive or paranoid

These aren’t ideal qualities in someone you’d want to work with — let alone someone in a position of power.

How to curb your inner narcissist

Maccoby has three recommendations to help leaders avoid the follies of their inner unproductive narcissist — and they apply to us all.

1) Find a trusted side-kick. It might be a colleague or a coach — but you need someone who can point out the operational requirements of your vision and keep you rooted in reality.

2) Take time to explain yourself. If you want the organisation to identify with you, and the way you think, take the time to clarify and communicate.

3) Embrace self-knowledge. Narcissists typically reject psychotherapy but they could benefit most from it. So, if you have a gut feeling that therapy won’t work for you . . . give it a try anyway.

What we can learn from narcissists

Narcissists are the change-makers, the visionaries, the disruptors. They want to make a better world — in their own image. Like them or loathe them, we need them if we want things to improve.

If you’re one of these visionaries, passionate and willing to stop at nothing to achieve your goal, take the precautions above — or it just might come back to haunt you.


Originally published Feb 10, 2021, last updated Jun 1, 2021

founders leadership psychology

About Dave Bailey

Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week. 

I will never sell your information, for any reason.

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