The Productive Narcissist
The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership

Michael Maccoby

Summary by Leslie Johnston, Business Book Summaries

In The Productive Narcissist, author Michael Maccoby challenges many of the predominant theories of leadership by arguing that the leaders of America's most innovative—and some of its most successful—companies are not consensus-building bureaucrats, but rather what he terms productive narcissists. The concept is based on Freud's classification of the basic human personality types, one of which is the narcissist.

Effective leadership depends on context; running an innovative company is not the same as presiding over a bureaucracy. While many people aspire to developing a certain kind of product, or to starting a new company, or to making a difference in their customers' lives, it takes a very unusual people to believe that they, through their ideas and their personalities, can bring about the kind of change that affects how people live and work. While others look at the world as a place that needs changing, narcissists believe that they can change it. They reject how things are for how they should be. The narcissistic vision, therefore, begins with a rejection of the status quo along with a compelling vision.

Productive narcissists, those who do change the world, have the charisma and drive to convince others to buy in to their vision. They also possess an interrelated set of skills the author defines as strategic intelligence that are necessary for sustainable corporate leadership that will make the vision a reality. Strategic intelligence is the ability of leaders to think systematically: to develop a systemic vision that takes into account present and future social and economic trends; to partner with people and corporations that complement and further corporate goals; and to implement a vision by developing—and most important—motivating a workforce to share the goals, values, and vision of the CEO.

Strategic intelligence speaks directly to the challenges facing CEOs in an era dominated by complex global corporations made up of knowledge and service workers, who must be motivated to think as well as act and who have to be convinced about the corporate vision and their role in it.

Narcissists are independent thinkers who take big risks. What distinguishes them from idle dreamers is that their vision engages others and provides them with meaning. In doing so, they smash the old economic rules and create an entirely new game with their own rules, using their corporations or organizations as vehicles for their vision. It is strategic intelligence, the intellectual skills of foresight and systems thinking, along with the real-world skills of visioning, motivating, and partnering, that allows productive narcissists to stay on top once they have reached success and to keep their company, and their vision, on track.

No matter what their strengths are, productive narcissists are difficult people to work with and work for. There are, however, five strategies for working with them: know yourself and your personality type, acquire deep knowledge in your field, learn how to partner effectively, do not invest your own ego, and strive to protect the narcissist's image. After gaining self-knowledge, we are better equipped to partner strategically with narcissistic bosses. Productive narcissists have a reputation for not having time for people unless they can fill in the gaps in their own knowledge and skill set, which means that narcissists use people in much the same way they use information and books. However, if such bosses are convinced that we have knowledge or skills they need, they will see us as partners.

While the Internet bubble may have burst, we are still in the midst of continuous invention and experimentation—the context for visionary leadership. It takes a productive narcissist to unleash the power of emerging technology, turning it into tools that can change the world.

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