Is Oprah a Narcissistic Leader?

If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect

Ted Turner

The notion of the successful, humble leader has gained popularity since Jim Collins published his best-seller Good To Great in 2001. For those who didn’t read the book, Collins and his team researched thousands of U.S. companies to determine America’s best organizations and the characteristics/best practices they shared.

After Collins’ team crunched the data, only eleven companies survived the cut. They are: Abbot, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreen’s and Wells Fargo–more on this later.

Next Collins identified common characteristics the “great” companies had that set them apart from competitors. One was leadership style. Expecting to find charismatic alpha males at the helm, Collins stumbled onto the startling discovery that America’s top eleven companies (at the time) were all run by what he calls “Level-5 Leaders”. Collins describes them as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, and understated”.

The gist of Collins’ conclusion is that charismatic, ego-driven leadership is overrated, and at best yields only short-term results. He cites, as a case in point, Lee Iacocca’s meteoric rise and precipitous fall at Chrysler in the 1980s. To bolster his thesis, Collins poses to the reader the following challenge: if you had to choose between betting $1 on a humble, unassuming guy by the name of Alan Wurtzel (former Circuit City CEO), or $1 on Jack Welch the day he took the helm at General Electric in 1981 and held until January 2000, which horse would you pick? Using stock market performance as a yardstick, the result is stunning: Humble Alan laps Charismatic Jack six times. (Based on Collins’ research, Circuit City produced six-fold returns compared to GE during the same time period.)

This is heady stuff. With all the overpaid CEOs in the news bailing with golden parachutes while their companies crash and burn, the notion that a humble guy could lead a company to the Promised Land is indeed seductive.

I’ll fess up here and say that as much as the humble-leader thesis appeals to me–and as strongly as I believe a reflective workforce is critical in creating a continuous improvement culture–I’ve seen too many successful narcissists in my life to accept Collins’ conclusion in absolute terms. Absolutist thinking rarely reflects reality.

Let’s briefly examine three of Collins’ “great” companies that didn’t sustain their greatness.

What Happened to Fannie Mae, Circuit City and Gillette?

“…the comparison leaders [of companies that were not “great”] concerned more with their own reputation for personal greatness, often failed to set the company up for success in the next generation. After all, what better testament to your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?”

Jim Collins, Good To Great

David Maxwell may have been a hugely successful “humble leader” during his reign at Fannie Mae from 1981 to 1991, but the next generation apparently didn’t get the memo on humility. Jim Johnson, his immediate successor, improperly deferred $200 million in expenses during his reign, and in doing so, secured huge bonuses for himself and other Fannie Mae executives in 1998. And it’s been downhill ever since. Today Fannie Mae teeters on the brink of collapse.

And what about Circuit City? Alan Wurtzel may indeed have been an effective “humble leader”, but today the company is bankrupt.

Then there’s Gillette. In 2005 they sold out to P&G, and in the process took six thousand of its employees “off the bus”–then unceremoniously threw them under it. Is this what a great company does?

The free-market mavens will argue that mergers and layoffs are just good old-fashioned American capitalism, a brutal reality that comes with living in a Darwinian economy where only the strong survive. I wonder how many are supporting the bailouts today.

Perhaps they’re right. But if merging companies and laying off employees is the natural order of a free market, then it’s nothing short of miraculous that some of the elite Japanese companies–companies that are yet to have layoffs or mergers in the U.S.–have survived. Someone better tell them they’re doing it all wrong.

Another way to look at it is that mergers and layoffs are activities undertaken in the name of “healthy capitalism”, but actually disguise flawed management practices that make such desperate measures necessary in the first place. Yeah, greed’s got a big hand in it too.

Of course it’s also possible that the level-5 leaders Collins studied were not so humble after all. Lots of narcissists have a knack for wrapping themselves in the sheepskin of humility.

What we can say for sure is that having Collins’ level-5 leaders at the helm of a company is not necessarily a predictor of long-term success. We can see now that these humble, egoless “level-5 leaders” who were supposed to be setting up the next generation for success, didn’t get the job done.

Another Point of View

Michael Maccoby, author of Narcissistic Leaders, says Jim Collins’ conclusions about humble leaders are flawed and reflect a value judgment based on wishful thinking. Now there’s a surprise.

Maccoby argues that narcissists come in two flavors: productive and unproductive. It’s the unproductive types, according to Macoby, who are the bad guys, while the productive ones make some of our best leaders.

On the productive side of the ledger are the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Donald Trump, Oprah and Bono, the “narcissistic visionaries” of our time who forge new directions and have the audacity to believe they can change the world.

Bill, Steve, Jack and Donald all seem to fit the narcissist mold. But Oprah and Bono? (Guess I’m blinded by all the good deeds they’re doing in the world.)

It helps to understand that Maccoby’s theory is predicated on debunking the layman’s image of a narcissist as a vain, self-absorbed person gazing into the mirror. He quotes Freud to set us straight:

“There is no tension between ego and super-ego (indeed, on the strength of this type one would scarcely have arrived at the hypothesis of a super-ego), and there is no preponderance of erotic needs. The subject’s main interest is directed to self-preservation; he is independent and not open to intimidation. His ego has a large amount of aggressiveness at its disposal, which also manifests itself in a readiness for activity. In his erotic life loving is preferred above being loved. People belonging to this type impress others as being ‘personalities’; they are especially suited to act as a support for others, to take on the role of leaders and to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development or to damage the established state of affairs.”

If you accept Freud’s theories and follow Maccoby’s logic, narcissistic leaders serve an important function in society. It’s tough to deny that some of them have made pretty damn good leaders.

This would seem to debunk my thesis that, in order to develop a competitive, reflective workforce, humility must start at the top of the organization and trickle down. The logic works if you assume humility and narcissism are absolute, static traits in a person.

Life isn’t so clear-cut. Humans, all of us, are a complex mixed bag of contradictions.

Can a Narcissist be Humble?

I submit that there’s a bit of a narcissist in all of us, some of us more than others. And that most of us also experience moments of genuine humility as well.

Who’s to say that when Trump is alone at night he doesn’t bow his head and reflect on his words and deeds that day? That he doesn’t admit, at least to himself, that he made a mistake, should’ve done something differently, or handled a situation with more compassion? Yeah, I can’t believe I just wrote that either–but it’s possible!

Let’s be real: you have to be a bit of narcissist to take on a leadership role in the first place. But this doesn’t preclude leaders from choosing to temper their egos with humility, and in doing so, setting an example for the rest of the organization.

Can narcissism and humility coexist within the same person? Oprah and Bono’s good deeds speak for themselves. If we accept the premise that they are narcissistic leaders, then we’ve got solid evidence that it’s possible for narcissists to tap into the power of humility and reflection.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2008


2 responses to “Is Oprah a Narcissistic Leader?

  1. Great post, just what is the japanese secret?

  2. Timothy, thanks for the kind words.

    No Japanese secret that I know of. But Confucianism plays a big role in what constitutes the “ideal leader” in Japan. If you’re interested, check out my other posts:: “Confucius in Corporate America?” and “Can American Executives Manage Without Their Corporate Jets?”

    One more important point: not all Japanese companies are the same. So when I reference “Japanese companies, keep in mind that I’m talking about the “elite” companies.

    Thanks for responding. Aloha!


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