Why Narcissistic CEOs Are Bad for Business

Last Updated Mar 15, 2010 9:50 AM EDT

I'm sitting here in the United Airlines Red Carpet Club lounge, minding my own business while awaiting a flight. But even earplugs wouldn't have prevented me from overhearing the guy pacing around, talking on his Bluetooth headset: he was a study in executive narcissism, ego gone awry, and every attribute I warn boards about when selecting new leaders for their companies.

"I really do want a long-term relationship with you" he said, at the point that I tuned in. Hmm, I thought. Not sure if he's talking to a prospective client or his girlfriend. It soon became clear. Amid much talk about new products, distribution rights, and the details of a term sheet, I heard much more than he should have been revealing in such a quasi-public place. I'm actually protecting him here, but I also learned the name of his public company, his role, and his career aspirations. Doing this deal, he pointed out on the phone, would not only be good for the client, but could also catapult him into the C-suite.

The boom mike on his headset was wagging up and down as he tried to persuade the person on the other end that he was trustworthy and worth taking a big gamble on. I had my doubts. While I have no problem at all with ambition -- I encourage it frequently in my clients, and have a healthy dose of it myself -- it's less appealing when displayed so nakedly. And his judgment left a lot to be desired, given his live broadcast of what presumably should have been a confidential negotiation.

I doubt his CEO would have been too happy with this display. My CEO clients are rightfully sticklers for discretion, and they value good judgment above all. This clown was, in my clinical opinion, a mess. Somewhere along the way, he must have demonstrated some sort of effectiveness to be in a position that allowed him to engage in the kind of conversation I witnessed. But my guess is that whatever skills he possessed would be severely limited by his unbridled narcissism. The more he tried to convince the other person that the deal would be so good, the more he revealed how self-serving he truly was.

There is no shortage of such characters in business class lounges everywhere, but rarely do you get to eavesdrop on them in full bloom. I would not bet on this guy making it to the top, but if he does, I wouldn't bet on the company under him.

If you're on a board, or you're a CEO looking at talent in your organization, this is exactly the kind of guy you want to avoid. Self-involved, self-preservative, self-everything -- they can wreak havoc in your organization, or for your shareholders. While they may profess to be focused on the client or the company, they doth protest too much, and these narcissists will ultimately disappoint, or worse.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.