Presidential Hubris: How Narcissism Influences Leadership

Imagine a world were the President of the United States uses the office to do whatever he wants. Whether he’s sacrificing the truth, ignoring basic ethics, indulging in harmful measures of entitlement, or abusing underlings and colleagues, we are all treated as pawns on his ascent into power. Of course, I’m referring to Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (why, who did you think I was talking about?).

In Frank Underwood’s time on television, he has been diagnosed with numerous psychological disorders. One that seems fitting for today’s political climate are his narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissism involves excessive self-aggrandizement, a grandiose view of one’s talents and achievements, and a preoccupation with fantasies of power. These predilections result in extreme selfishness and a shallowness of emotion where the individual maintains a strong distain towards criticism, is unwilling to compromise, and is over-reliant on the need for praise (as a note, we’re still discussing President Underwood).

The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties – never regret.—Frank Underwood

The indicators of narcissism are often confused with those of self-esteem. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, makes the distinction that while people high in self-esteem value individual achievement, they also value their relationships. Narcissists, on the other hand, are “missing that piece about valuing, caring and their relationships, so they tend to lack empathy, they have poor relationship skills.” They are likewise linked to materialism and a greater focus on money, fame, and image.

If narcissism sounds like a leadership style you would enjoy, the research is clear that it is ineffective. One study I read on Knowtro found that narcissism decreases task performance by almost 10%. According to the authors, these behaviors have a significantly negative impact on core job responsibilities, team performance, and promotions. Another study concluded that narcissism increases workplace deviance by up to 24%.

But, you may be thinking, aren’t most CEOs associated with being narcissistic? The short answer is, “No.” Sure, there have been articles written about particular individuals, but research does not support the argument that the majority of CEOs are any more self-centered then the rest of us. In fact, the Center for Executive Succession found that only 5% of leaders can be classified as narcissists. At the same time, 60% were described as being high in humility. For you math folks, this means CEOs were 12 times more likely to be humble than narcissistic.

The American people don’t know what’s best for them…I do.—Frank Underwood

Now that we’ve determined how narcissism is 1) not desirable and 2) not a component of success, it’s time for the difficult question: Are you a narcissist? As a hint, if you are offended by my merely asking the question, you are in danger. Those leaning towards narcissism are reluctant to admit they may have such a flaw, as doing so would conflict with their self-image of perfection.

To gain a more unbiased perspective of ourselves, psychiatrist and author Mark Goulston has a quick self-assessment. Called the Narcissist Inventory, answer the ten questions below using a 1-3 scale (1 = rarely; 2 = sometimes; 3 = frequently):

  1. How often does the person need to be right at all costs?
  2. How often does the person act impatient with you for no good reason?
  3. How often does the person interrupt you in the middle of what you’re saying, and yet take offense if you interrupt?
  4. How often does the person expect you to drop whatever you’re thinking about and listen to him or her — and does the person take offense when you expect the same in return?
  5. How often does the person talk more than he or she listens?
  6. How often does the person say “Yes, but,” “That’s not true,” “No,” “However,” or “Your problem is”?
  7. How often does the person resist and resent doing something that matters to you, just because it’s inconvenient?
  8. How often does the person expect you to cheerfully do something that’s inconvenient for you?
  9. How often does the person expect you to accept behavior that he or she would refuse to accept from you?
  10. How often does the person fail to say “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “Congratulations,” or “Excuse me” when it’s called for?

To score your inventory, add up the total:

10-16 = The person is cooperative

17-23 = The person is argumentative

24-30 = The person is a narcissist

The President (Underwood, obviously) is unable to feel sympathy, remorse, or a genuine connection to others. His thirst for power is too overwhelming to allow such interference. And I doubt he’s interested in or able to change. We don’t have to be stuck is such a caustic trap as the President (still Underwood). There may be instances where we demonstrate a few narcissist traits, but this does not make us narcissist. What matters more is that we remain vigilantly aware of these tendencies so we can identify them before they influence our decision making and wreak havoc on our reputation. It’s the difference between suffering the inevitably bleak fate of Frank Underwood and being a real life leader.

How to Present Executive Presence with James Corden

I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddhist idea of presence and how we can be more aware of the “now.” According to its teachings, regret, fear, and anger come from comparing our current experience with a past, future, or alternative experience. This tension generates negative emotions that distract us from concentrating on what is occurring right in front of us.

In Western society, this concept of presence was popularized by British philosopher Alan Watts and his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Like Buddhism, he argues that the root of frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, a “constantly retreating phantom—the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” According to Watts, to escape this toxic cycle, we must maintain a full awareness of our present experience, which he differentiates from judging it, evaluating it, or relating it to some arbitrary ideal.

If the ancient teachings of Buddha or an acclaimed English academic don’t convince you, consider what The Late Late Show host James Corden said in a recent interview with Chris Hardwick:

[Being present is] the only way you can juggle being busy. You need to think, ‘What’s the thing I have to do now and I won’t think about anything else other than being the best version of myself now.’ So, if all I’m thinking about now is trying to make this the best [interview] it can be, I can leave here and go, ‘And now I’m going to try to be the best host or boss tonight.’ And when I get home, I’m going to try and be the best husband… And if that’s what you are always trying to do, you will only be a success. It’s the moment when you go, ‘Aww, I’ve got that on Thursday and I don’t want to think about this or that,’ then it’s all a disaster, then it all falls apart. When you think, ‘I’ve just gotta get through this so I can get to that thing that’s more important,’ well that thing may never come, it may never arrive. So actually, if you just go, ‘when I get to that, I’ll think about that. Right now, I’m just going to think about this,’ then, I find, that’s the only way I can juggle everything.

As intelligent people, it may seem obvious why fixating on the past and future is a diversion from the existing moment. However, as leaders, we must do more than just “live in the now;” we must demonstrate that we are present for the moment, for the team, for the vision, and for the tasks at hand. Sound daunting? It’s easier than you may think.

The most successful leaders know that appearing present is about providing your undivided attention. This can be illustrated through something I call the Dean Test. Named after Dean “the King of Cool” Martin, let’s say you walk into a meeting with a bunch of strangers. Who’s in charge? Using the Dean Test you can pick out the most senior leader by looking for the person who is least distracted.

Whereas everyone else is checking their phone, rummaging through folders, and desperately gawking at the clock, the leader is unencumbered by logistical details or outside interference. They are projecting a sense of freedom, authority, and calmness as they converse with those in the room. They focus on whoever is speaking, listen attentively, and inquisitively dig into the issues being presented.

By displaying a composed demeanor, the leader is exhibiting a quiet confidence that says, “Your time is as valuable as mine, so I will pay attention because this is the most important place I need to be right now.” Showing respect is the fasted way to build respect, and everyone appreciates attention from the boss. Plus, you absorb more of the information since you are engaged in what is being said.

The only thing that exists is this. Everything behind is gone and everything forward is unknown. All you’ve actually got is now. Everything else is dust; this is the only thing that is happening. So if you’re just trying to do this now, and when you get home do that, and tomorrow be wherever you need to be, then you’ll be alright.—James Corden

Feeling a sense of presence is not always easy. We all have competing prioritizes that take us away from the here and now. So start with behaving as if you are present. Keep your phone in your pocket and focus on your surroundings. “Pretend” as if whatever you are doing right now actually matters. The more you act purposefully, the more natural it will become, and the closer you’ll get to emulating Buddha, Alan Watts, James Corden, Dean Martin, etc.

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

2017 Crack the Leadership Code Summit

Are you familiar with the Crack the Leadership Code summit? Hosted by executive coach and organizational psychologist Michelle Pizer, this annual event is a great opportunity to learn practical and inspiring ways to become a better leader and thrive in your career.

The Summit is an online event running from May 22 – June 4, 2017 and is free if you register by May 21st.

For the upcoming 2017 Summit, I am honored to participate along with 30 others leadership experts, including New York Times bestselling authors; TedTalkers; and contributors to the Harvard Business Review, Inc, and Forbes. We’ll be discussing such topics as:

  • How to create a compelling vision
  • How to inspire your team to aspire for themselves
  • How to create a personal culture of leadership
  • How to manage your personal brand and craft your professional story
  • Fueling your courage and confidence as a woman leader
  • How to use social media to your advantage

Interviews are posted every day for the two-week event and are available for only 72 hours after they are released.

Click here to register and learn more.

Hope to see you there!

Are You Suffering from Moral Superiority?

Are you really as good a person as you think you are? Don’t get me wrong; I think you’re great, really, I do. What I’m asking is whether you are morally superior to the general population. Are your decisions more principled? Is you behavior more virtuous?

According to research in Social Psychological and Personality Science, we tend to see ourselves as better than other people. In the study, participants rated themselves and the average person on traits reflecting the core dimensions of social perception: morality (e.g., sincerity, honesty), sociability (e.g., warmth, likeability), and agency (e.g., competence, creativity). Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities. For instance, they rated traits like trustworthiness as 6.1 for themselves, but only 4.3 for others. The other domains of positive self-evaluation also received higher scores, but the participants didn’t inflate their scores as much as they did for the morality-based characteristics.

In another study from Motivation and Emotion, participants estimated the percentage of times they exhibited positive traits. Six weeks later, these same participants evaluated the average person’s positive traits based on estimates that supposedly represented the populace. In reality, the traits being measured were their own scores. Results found that people consistently gauge themselves more favorably than others, even when the estimates on which they base their ratings are identical to their own.

If you’re familiar with the theory of social projection, it states the belief that if you do something, others are likely to do the same. But if this were true, in the two studies above and numerous others, participants would either drop their own self-rating or rate everyone else higher. No, social projection may be true for aspects of our life, but there remains an assumption that one’s morality is significantly greater than everyone else.

As a leader, moral superiority can have dangerous repercussions. This “positive illusion” leads to self-justified corruption, a reduced willingness to compromise, and intolerance. In addition, people displaying this arrogance feel less obligated to follow a strict ethical code because they believe themselves to already be so much more progressive. Thus, by believing we are above the moral average, it could ironically makes us less so.

Don’t fall for the trappings of moral conceit. I’m sure you are extremely morality-bound, but so are most of the people around you. You may not always understand why they behave the ways they do, but that’s an opportunity to converse, not pronounce them as malefactors and yourself a saint. Sustain a more grounded outlook and keep your “ethical ego” in check.