Leadership, Now With Less Narcissism

The age of the “great man” leader may be over, but one study suggests CEOs still stumble over their egos. A little humility and openness to learning can help.

What’s your most effective leadership style? Thousands of online quizzes stand at the ready to help you find the answer. But perhaps it’s best to get away from this business of “leadership style” entirely.

That seems to be the message of more than a million professionals. In “People First for Organizational Fitness,” a new global trends report from the Myers-Briggs Company, one takeaway is that leaders increasingly need to demonstrate flexibility above all, rather than project one particular persona. “They need to be able to change and adapt in order to be successful,” write the authors of the study, based in part from data gathered from 1.3 million Myers-Briggs personality assessments. “In a rapidly evolving world, today’s leaders are never a finished article. They need to stay motivated to develop themselves.”

It takes bravery to confess to your blind spots and recruit people to help address them.

The kind of adaptability the report wants to encourage has less to do with personality than it does levels of engagement within an organization. A leader has to readily grasp his or her own capabilities, the organization’s teams, and the wider environment the organization occupies, according to the report. To that end, there’s one personality type that people no longer have patience for from their leaders: narcissism.

According to the report, many organizations still have a habit of elevating “great man” types into leadership roles. Emphasis on man; Myers-Briggs’ own research suggests that such behavior “can lead to women being less likely to seek out leadership roles, even when they are as well or better qualified than men.” But narcissism is, more elementally, a rejection of others’ input, and one critical element of the flexibility the report argues for is the ability to recognize how teams function, and to build enough trust to help them function well.

Such findings all sound pretty elementary: I’ve yet to speak with an association executive who doesn’t understand the value of teams, or who’s thundered about the virtues of narcissism. Servant leadership is a familiar concept; every leader grasps the demands of serving many masters; and most know that the business environment is prone to rapid change. But one thing the report underscores is the urgency of that need to develop flexibility. Younger workers, they point out, want to advance quickly and tend to keep an eye out for other opportunities. And if you want to keep those employees around by putting them on a management track, automation has changed what management used to be. “Artificial intelligence (AI) is stripping out some of the ‘grunt work’ that trainees traditionally undertook on their way towards becoming leaders,” the report says. “This means they’re less experienced than previous trainees would have been, especially in terms of working with and managing other people.”

That means you may need to be more creative in how you upskill younger workers. And it may also mean you need to upskill some yourself. The report mentions the value of reverse mentoring, in which younger workers help school senior leaders in particular areas—commonly but not exclusively in tech. And it’s in that case where leaders may have to ask if they’re as narcissistic as they think they aren’t. It takes a certain bravery not only to confess to your blind spots, but to recruit people from within your own organization to help address them.

Which is why I think there’s one leadership style that’s valuable and worth cultivating: vulnerability. “It is nearly impossible to be an authentic leader without being vulnerable,” technology CEO Justin Grossman wrote recently in Forbes. “It is through this authenticity and willingness to be courageously vulnerable that teams are able to flourish and thrive.” Part of the reason for that, Grossman explains, is that plenty of studies show how people can detect inauthenticity in a moment. Another is that if you want your teams and organizations to think big and demonstrate courage, you’ll have to do some of that yourself.

In other words, leaders still get to be themselves. But being yourself also requires finding ways to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.

(kaipong/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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