Analysis: Narcissism in the boardroom-I

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent  |  Oct. 18, 2002 at 3:46 PM
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SKOPJE, Macedonia, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- The perpetrators of the recent spate of financial frauds in the United States acted with callous disregard for both their employees and shareholders, not to mention other stakeholders. Psychologists have often remote-diagnosed them as "malignant, pathological narcissists."

Narcissists are driven by the need to uphold and maintain a false self -- a concocted, grandiose, and demanding psychological construct typical of the narcissistic personality disorder. The false self is projected to the world in order to garner "narcissistic supply" -- adulation, admiration, or even notoriety and infamy. Any kind of attention is usually deemed by narcissists to be preferable to obscurity.

The false self is suffused with fantasies of perfection, grandeur, brilliance, infallibility, immunity, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. To be a narcissist is to be convinced of a great, inevitable personal destiny. The narcissist is preoccupied with ideal love, the construction of brilliant scientific theories, the composition of the greatest work of art, the founding of a new school of thought, the attainment of fabulous wealth, the reshaping of a nation or a conglomerate, and so on.

The narcissist never sets realistic goals to himself. He is forever preoccupied with fantasies of uniqueness, record breaking, or breathtaking achievements. His verbosity reflects this propensity.

Reality is, naturally, quite different and this gives rise to a "grandiosity gap." The demands of the false self are never satisfied by the narcissist's accomplishments, standing, wealth, sexual prowess, or knowledge. The narcissist's grandiosity and sense of entitlement are equally incommensurate with his achievements.

To bridge the grandiosity gap, the malignant (pathological) narcissist resorts to shortcuts. These very often lead to fraud.

The narcissist cares only about appearances. What matters to him is the facade of wealth and its attendant social status and narcissistic supply. Witness the travestied extravagance of Tyco's Denis Kozlowski. Media attention only exacerbates the narcissist's addiction and makes it incumbent on him to go to ever-wilder extremes to secure uninterrupted supply from this source.

The narcissist lacks empathy -- the ability to put himself in other people's shoes. He does not recognize boundaries -- personal, corporate, or legal. Everything and everyone are to him mere objects unconditionally and uncomplainingly available in his pursuit of narcissistic gratification.

This makes the narcissist perniciously exploitative. He uses, abuses, devalues, and discards even his nearest and dearest in the most chilling manner. The narcissist is obsessed with his overwhelming need to reduce his anxiety and regulate his sense of self-worth by securing a constant supply of his drug -- attention.

American executives acted without compunction when they raided their employees' pension funds, as did Robert Maxwell 12 years earlier in Britain.

The narcissist is convinced of his superiority -- cerebral or physical. To his mind, he is a Gulliver hamstrung by a horde of narrow-minded and envious Lilliputians. The dot-com "new economy" was infested with "visionaries" with a contemptuous attitude towards the mundane: profits, business cycles, conservative economists, doubtful journalists, and cautious analysts.

Yet, deep inside, the narcissist is painfully aware of his addiction to others -- their attention, admiration, applause, and affirmation. He despises himself for being thus dependent. He hates people the same way a drug addict hates his pusher. He wishes to "put them in their place," demonstrate to them how inadequate and imperfect they are in comparison to his regal self and how little he craves or needs them.

The narcissist regards himself as one would an expensive present: a gift to his company, family, neighbors, colleagues or country. This firm conviction of his inflated importance makes him feel entitled to special treatment, special outcomes, immediate gratification, obsequiousness, and leniency. It also makes him feel immune to mortal laws and somehow divinely protected and insulated from the inevitable consequences of his deeds and misdeeds.

The self-destructive narcissist plays the role of the "bad guy" (or "bad girl"). But even this is within the traditional social roles cartoonishly exaggerated by the narcissist to attract attention. Men are likely to emphasize intellect, power, aggression, money, or social status. Narcissistic women are likely to emphasize body, looks, charm, sexuality, feminine "traits" -- homemaking, children and childrearing.

Punishing the wayward narcissist is a veritable catch-22. A jail term is useless as a deterrent if it only serves to focus attention on the narcissist. Being infamous is second best to being famous -- and far preferable to being ignored. The only way to punish a narcissist effectively is to withhold narcissistic supply from him and thus to prevent him from becoming a notorious celebrity.

Given a sufficient amount of media exposure and public attention, the narcissist may even consider the whole grisly affair to be emotionally rewarding. To the narcissist, freedom, wealth and social status are all means to an end. And the end is attention. If he can secure attention by being the big bad wolf, the narcissist unhesitatingly transforms himself into one. Jeffrey, Lord Archer, for instance, seems to be positively basking in the media circus provoked by his prison diaries.

The narcissist does not victimize, plunder, terrorize and abuse others in a cold, calculating manner. He does so offhandedly, as a manifestation of his genuine character. To be truly "guilty" one needs to intend, to deliberate, to contemplate one's choices and then to choose one's acts. The narcissist does none of these.

Thus, punishment breeds in him surprise, hurt and seething anger. The narcissist is stunned by society's insistence that he should be held accountable for his deeds and penalized accordingly. He feels wronged, the victim of bias, discrimination and injustice. He rebels and rages.

Depending upon the pervasiveness of his magical thinking, the narcissist may feel besieged by overwhelming powers, forces cosmic and intrinsically ominous. He may develop compulsive rites to fend off this "bad," unwarranted, persecutory influences.

The narcissist, very much the infantile outcome of stunted personal development, engages in magical thinking. He feels omnipotent, that there is nothing he couldn't do or achieve if only he sets his mind to it. He feels omniscient -- he rarely admits to ignorance and regards his intuitions and intellect as founts of objective data.

Thus, narcissists are haughtily convinced that introspection is a more important and more efficient (not to mention easier to accomplish) method of obtaining knowledge than the systematic study of outside sources of information in accordance with strict and tedious curricula. Narcissists are "inspired" and they despise hamstrung technocrats.

To some extent, they feel omnipresent because they are either famous or about to become famous or because their product is selling or is being manufactured globally. Deeply immersed in their delusions of grandeur, they firmly believe that their acts have -- or will have -- a great influence not only on their firm, but on their country, or even on mankind. Having mastered the manipulation of their human environment, they are convinced that they will always "get away with it." They develop hubris and a false sense of immunity.


Part 2 of this analysis will appear Monday. Comments to svaknin@upi.com. Sam Vaknin is author of "Malignant Self Love -- Narcissism Revisited" (ISBN 8023833847)

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