Is Narcissism always a bad thing?

August 12, 2014

NarcissusNarcissism is often associated with ‘the dark side of leadership’. Recent studies offer a revised perspective

A review in The Economist [March 22nd, 2014] was entitled Narcissism: Know thy selfie. It reviewed two recent books on Narcissism: Mirror, Mirror: the uses and abuses of self-love, by Simon Blackburn, and The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck.

Lasch and the Culture of Narcissism

In examining these books it is worth going back to the psychodynamic treatment of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. It is worth revisiting this classic study as the critic As Siegel summarized the work:

in “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch took what was still mainly a narrowly clinical term and used it to diagnose a pathology that seemed to have spread to all corners of American life. In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval. Lasch saw the echo of such qualities in “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, and the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations.

The full-on connection between narcissism and many of the evils of modern society was always likely to attract a revisionary accounts such as those of Blackburn and Lubeck.

Narcissism and balance

Blackburn argues that a ‘healthy’ self-image is bounded at one pole by excessive self-regard, and at the other pole by lack of adequate self-image. This adds needed nuance to the Lasch position, as well as to the popular connection between narcissism and the dark side of charismatic leadership. His plea is for positioning the individual more carefully in their context. The prevailing view of egotistical leaders may have slipped too much into polarisation. Where he is closest to Lasch is in his cutting observations of advertising which seeks to bolster the self-image of the consumer (Blackburn takes the ‘because you are worth it’ message of L’Oreal as an example]

‘Good narcissism’

Lunbeck adds the point that the neo-Freudians have tended to focus on narcissism as bad, and that Lasch contributed this cultural belief. Freud, she argues, saw the development of self-regard as a form of ‘good narcissism’.

Narcissism as a dilemma

Both Blackburn and Lunbeck show us that narcissism may be more of a dilemma to be understood than a universal curse.

Suggestion to leadership tutors

Essay question: Is Narcissism a bad leadership characteristic? Discuss, drawing on the work of Simon Blackburn and Elizabeth Lunbeck


Why business students like the Alibaba case and Jack Ma

March 23, 2013

Jack Ma wikipediaWhen Asian business students are asked to write about leadership, one of their favourite topics is the Chinese telecommunications giant Alibaba, and its dynamic leader Jack Ma

This is hardly surprising. The company has grown through the vision and enterprise of its founder. Already a host of corporate stories are developing around him and his giant baby, recently valued at 35 billion dollars.

The Jack Ma story

Jack Ma fits the profile of the creative entrepreneur. His decisions are imaginative. He describes his leadership journey in vivid anecdotes which suggests that he has a well-developed transformational style. An English teacher and graduate of Hangzhou, Mr Ma became a skilled web site builder, one of the first in China.

When he was thinking about going international he looked for a corporate name that worked in Chinese but which also had global connotations. Once when in America, someone mentioned the story of Ali-Baba to him, and he thought he had found what he was looking for. He tested his idea quickly and locally, as found there was surprising recognition of the story from the Arabian Knights, and the magic password Open Sesame which opened up a cave full of treasures.. Yes, my company could be remembered for opening up a place full of treasures, he thought. Ali-Baba had brought prosperity to his village.

He listed the new name slightly differently, noticing that it was also effective when written in Chinese characters.

A sprawling conglomerate

Alibaba, founded in 1999, was to grow into the largest private corporation in China. It was described by Bloomberg Business Week as a sprawling conglomerate of web-based companies. The largest elements are Taobao and the Alibaba group. The former is a Chinese version of E-Bay and was to become market leader in e-commerce in China

Its Business relationship with Yahoo has been controversial. Alibaba grew and prospered under its founder-leader, Yahoo struggled to compete in its more global business.

Time to quit says Jack Ma

Recently, the founder has decided to hand over the leadership to a senior executive Jonathan Lu in advance of an anticipated initial public share offering which is being predicted to match that of Facebook [or more, as Facebook's shares have dipped this year]. The South China Post stated:

The announcement came a few days after Alibaba, which Ma founded in 1999, announced a sweeping restructuring that will divide the group into 25 business units under the direction of two committees, one for strategy and the other for operations. In an e-mail sent to Alibaba’s more than 24,000 employees worldwide on January 15, Ma said he decided to relinquish his position as chief executive because the company had people who “are better equipped to manage and lead an internet ecosystem like ours”.

Ma described how he realised years ago that he was not suited to be a traditional chief executive of a big firm. He said that “at 48 I am no longer ‘young’ for the internet business”. What he aims to be is “a good partner to more capable colleagues”, which he intends to accomplish by continuing his role as executive chairman.

Ma described the restructuring as “the most difficult reorganisation” in Alibaba’s history. But it is a bet to stay competitive in the mainland’s fast-growing e-commerce market. JP Morgan has estimated this market to be worth US$436 billion in 2015. The move fuelled speculation that Ma was laying the groundwork for Alibaba’s initial public offering, which the company has denied.

What happens next?

Predictions are generally favourable. I agree with The Economist [March 23rd 2013] which noted that while the future is promising “…there is nothing inevitable about Alibaba’s future fortunes”. I urge students of leadership to do a little ‘map testing’ before accepting that newspaper’s casual SWOT analysis: [1] that Alibaba could overreach itself; that [2] it would face the risk that ‘foreign governments will clamp down’ and [3] face an internal threat because ” The Communist Party is bound to be jealous of an outfit that has so much data on Chinese citizens.”

I’m afraid that piece of analysis would have not obtained a particular high grade, if it had been supplied in a student assignment on Alibaba’s prospects.


Salman Taseer: ‘A good man who did something.’

January 13, 2011

The Economist wrote an obituary for Governor Salman Taseer who was killed while in capitivity facing charges, Jan 4th 2011. They described Taseer as ‘a good man who did something.’ We contrast news from Western and regional perspectives.

Salmaan Taseer was Governor of Punjab. A former Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) member, he was appointed to the post in 2008 by former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf.

The Telegraph

He was killed by Mumtaz Qadri, a member of Taseer’s security detail, someone described by The Telegraph as
a police officer known for his hard-line religious views.

Aljazeera

Aljazeera reported that some religious scholars had issued a statement asking people not “to try to lead funeral prayers, express regrets or sympathies over his assassination”. Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister told the news agency that Qadri had admitted to carrying out the attack because of Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

The Economist

The Economist [Jan 7th 2011] wrote as follows [the quote is edited from the on-line edition]. I find it strange that the newspaper lists factors ending (not beginning) with Mumtaz Qadri:

Mr Taseer, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and a close ally of the president, Asif Ali Zardari, had been campaigning on behalf of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker who in the course of a row with neighbours over drinking water was accused of blasphemy, convicted and sentenced to death. He had called for her to be pardoned, and also for the law, under which death for blasphemy against the prophet is mandatory, to be changed. His murderer, one of his bodyguards, said this was why the governor was killed.There are a few obvious culprits. First is the army. Zia ul Haq, who took power in a coup in 1977 (and who imprisoned Mr Taseer and had him tortured), introduced sharia law, set up many of the religious schools that have produced the [current] extremists and promoted fundamentalist officers. The politicians as a class, has given democracy such a bad name that mullahs who decry it get an enthusiastic hearing. Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister, formerly chief minister of Punjab and whose brother now holds that post, has long numbered fundamentalists among his allies, and it was during his time in power that the mandatory death sentence was introduced. After the Ahmadi massacre in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, neither of the Sharifs visited the mosques to pay their respects to the community.

The Pakistan People’s Party must take its share of the blame, too. Its manifesto committed it to repealing discriminatory laws, and President Zardari made much of Ms Bibi’s case. But instead of granting a swift pardon he dithered until the case became a cause célèbre for fundamentalists. The government abandoned the only two politicians brave enough to pursue the matter—Mr Taseer and Sherry Rehman, an MP who had introduced a private member’s bill to amend the law—and said it would not change the legislation.

For evil to prevail, as the old saw goes, all that is required is for good men to do nothing. But Mr Taseer’s fate shows how high a price those who do something may have to pay. Brave people who are isolated are [then] easy to pick off. Pakistan’s political class [should] cling on to the values Jinnah predicted would make the place “one of the greatest countries in the world”. It is a phrase that rings with tragic irony today.


Innovation leadership: a hard path to follow

December 11, 2008

survivors

Innovation leadership offers great rewards, but can be a hard path to follow, as the recent case of Project Red Stripe illustrates

Anyone who has become involved in the fascinating and infuriating business of innovation will find something of interest and value in Inside Project Red Stripe, Andrew Carey’s account of a much-trailed innovation project at The Economist newspaper.

The bald facts. The Economist called for and appointed a team of staff members to, well, to create the next big internet thing. The team was backed with £100,000 to do it. Oh, yes and it had to win GO/NO GO approval in six months.

The challenge captures the imagination. In my case, it took me back to other challenges, some recent, some in a pre-internet age. I’ll come back to these a little later.

The project shares the premise held by many organizations, that the next new winning idea is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered or (more mysteriously) to be created. The premise goes with a few other assumptions of what might help the process: find some creative and gifted people, offer them resources judged appropriate, add a dash of team training and development, and set them an energizing challenge.

As Carey puts it

To me it seems that this whale-of-an-idea was sometimes too much for the team. Too much for any team. They tried to bring it back down to size by playing with it: ‘Let’s divert the Thames through Lichfield’, ‘Let’s make the world square’. But still it became the elephant in the room, to mix gargantuan mammal metaphors. And the team found themselves becoming-whale-of-an-idea-in-the-room. Then they had two ideas. Which one should they choose? Had they chosen the right idea? Then the idea was altered. Was it still good enough? Then it was changed altogether. As time ran out there was an awful dread that they had missed their chance. And, from the moment that they decided to look externally for their idea, there was a pervading sense that the idea lived ‘out there’. Which meant, in turn, that the team would not be the authors or creators or owners of the idea.

The Culture of the group

The print version conveyed the culture of the group. For me, it describes a small group bubbling with energy, sometimes manic, with the kind of mood swings often to be found in team innovation projects.

At its inception, efforts were made to arrive at a diversity of experiences within the team. (Another bit of received wisdom for innovation teams). I wondered whether t ‘mission first, team afterwards’ missed a trick in team selection. If the prize is the ‘next big thing’, what might be the selection criteria? For discovery? For excellence? For delivery?

Carey describes the various dilemmas encountered as he struggled to make sense of the experience. Here’s one to add to his list, the Groucho Marx dilemma: how to assemble a team when the sort of person likely to think the unthinkable are often repelled by the ideas of teams. Might even the mighty Economist be too constraining a culture to retain in its ranks a Bill Gates, or a Richard Branson or an Anita Roddick? And how many such creatives might be good for a team? Before someone else mentions it, let me admit that the business tycoons who bothered with getting a business school education rarely shone on the formal courses, and often dropped out (like Bill Gates) to get on with the important business of inventing, designing, and making money. As for Business Schools, read Private professional elites
such as The Economist

Some lessons from history

Going back to my own extended involvement with various innovation groups, the Moby Dick reference triggered a flashback to a team of four set up within a great global organization. We have three strategic business streams. They are like three legs of an elephant. We want you to find the fourth leg of the elephant. The freedom did for us, more than the constraints.

Some years later I met the leader of another invention-seeking group from a company in a different industry. Again, it was a multi-national, again in search of the big new thing, which they believed could be best delivered a team whose only constraint was to stick to blue-sky thinking. The project manager had the self-confidence of the charismatic leader. He also seemed to be in a state of denial about the possibility that the company might just not have the knowhow to boss the world in a completely alien sort of business. It probably didn’t help that the group had acquired the name ‘the blue sky group’ (worse than red stripe, which doesn’t offer such an obvious hostage to fortune).

Both these efforts eventually sunk without trace. I have retained contacts with the organizations which have survived (no mean feat) but have no corporate memory of their innovation teams of earlier years.

These experiences seemed particularly depressing in contrast to the incredible claims made by Tom Peters and his ilk on innovative companies and their buccaneering leaders. Later the innovation frenzy subsided with more careful studies. Among these, of particular note are the analyses of Jim Collins, and the account by Ketchum and Trist of the benefits of autonomous groups at General Foods and elsewhere. These action researchers had re-discovered a systems perspective that went beyond the linear model of innovation having a ‘fuzzy front end’ where all the creativity rattles around, and the residual stages which make up the boring implementation bit. (Incidentally, the linear model highlights a similar fixation that has led Big Pharma into a misplaced search for the next block-buster drug) Ketchum and Trist re-discovered that organizational creativity is multi-leveled, that is to say a creative individual may not have a significant impact on a team, nor a creative team have impact on an organization.

So what happened to Project Red Stripe?
I think the team made a rather good fist of the challenge, and (they won’t thank me for saying it) at least were a class apart from the Alan Sugar playpen version of project leadership.

You may have guessed how the story is turning out, but you should make up your mind after accessing the website, which demonstrates the emergent and dynamic features of the new electronic media and particularly the social networking elements of it.

A courageous (foolhardy) venture? Maybe, but at least it will repay a visit to the website, which is morphing and hyperlinking its creative way into existence.


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