Narcissistic Leaders Can Be Dangerous

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Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Dr. Mark Stein of the University of Leicester, U.K., whose paper “When Does Narcissistic Leadership Become Problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers” was published in the Journal of Management Inquiry July 2013 issue.

Narcissists regularly gravitate towards leadership positions, and, for this reason, there is a burgeoning literature on the subject. When I explored this literature I found an intriguing and puzzling issue: narcissistic leaders range from being very helpful to being very harmful to their organizations (‘constructive’ and ‘reactive’ respectively, to use the terms of a pioneer in this field, Manfred Kets de Vries). Much scholarship in the area pullquotefocuses on this – perhaps surprising – Janus-faced aspect, and on identifying what these differences are all about. In my paper I re-frame the debate by arguing that the same leader may be, at different times, constructive and reactive. I also argue that changes in the environment might prompt a constructive narcissistic leader to become reactive, and suggest therefore that we need to be aware that constructive narcissistic leaders may be incubating problems that become manifest during times of difficulty.

JMI_72ppiRGB_150pixwAs I have been engaged for some years in examining the human dimension of financial crises, I was struck by accounts of Dick Fuld (CEO of Lehman Brothers), whose narcissistic leadership played a significant role in getting the organization into such trouble in September 2008. Most worryingly, even when it was clear that Lehman’s survival depended on it being bought out by another company, Fuld’s narcissism would not allow this to happen. What is less well-known – and central to my argument – is that Fuld was the longest-serving CEO of a major US bank during the period prior to this, successfully leading Lehman for over two decades. In my paper I try to understand how and why this happened, and what this tells us about narcissistic leaders.

Read the paper, When Does Narcissistic Leadership Become Problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers” online in the Journal of Management Inquiry.

image_previewMark Stein, PhD, is professor and chair in Leadership and Management at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. He has also held posts at Imperial College London, London School of Economics, Brunel University, and the Tavistock Institute. He has received an Emerald Citation of Excellence, the Richard Normann Prize, the “Group & Organization Management” best paper prize, and the iLab prize for innovative scholarship.

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