The historical moment in which we find ourselves drew me to reread Maccoby’s work. His observations are uncanny descriptions of our new national leadership.

Ten years ago, I co-hosted the first national conference on Followership. One of our presenters was the psychoanalyst and leadership expert, Michael Maccoby, author of the book Narcisstic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. The thesis of his book is that, contrary to our impression of narcissism, there are productive narcissists who can use their personality traits to create significant breakthroughs in the world; at the right historical moment they are essential to disrupt old patterns that allow for the introduction of new ways of human achievement.

There is general agreement that for too many years there has been dysfunctional gridlock in our national government resulting in failure to address trends that adversely affect millions of citizens. The political consequence was a tide of resentment that swept into office an outsider who has the forceful personality to break up existing patterns, offering the hope of more responsive and effective government. However, as Maccoby notes, this same personality type has the capacity to undo their own successes and lead followers down painfully destructive paths. This is very problematic in high office.

Author, Michael Maccoby
© David Cohen Photo DC

Here is Maccoby’s list of weaknesses of the productive narcissist.

  • Not listening
  • Oversensitivity to criticism
  • Paranoia
  • Anger and put-downs
  • Overcompetitiveness and over control
  • Isolation
  • Exaggeration and lying
  • Lack of self-knowledge
  • Grandiosity

As you readily see, Maccoby, writing ten years ago, is frighteningly descriptive of the weaknesses of our new head of government and state.

Because of the very traits identified here, the closest followers, the senior aides working for the narcissistic leader, have little chance of helping that leader self-correct. Nevertheless, they must try. If they do, the leader will break logjams that hold unsustainable patterns in place and restore the capacity of government to productively address problems. If they don’t, the narcissistic personality will create havoc that will not be easily undone.

The best chance of getting through to the narcissist is to frame issues in light of the potential opportunities for his success, or of the potential danger for tarnishing his reputation. Many people are counting on the skill of these followers to contain the excesses of the narcissistic personality. We fervently wish you success.

Ira Chaleff
Jan 2017

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