Self-centered leaders: The cause of most problems

I have read a number of business/management books, and have several on my shelves. Nowhere near as many as a lot of people, based both on those I know – in business and even more in management of medical operations and academic departments (although the first, for sure, and the second often, are basically businesses). They are obviously very popular, as there are many of them in bookstores, especially in airport bookstores; this is not surprising as such a high percentage of airport travelers are traveling on, well, business.

The reason I don’t read more of them is not actually because they are boring, which is the main reason I stop reading books. In fact, they are often well written, witty, and make good points; they are often better written and more engaging than a lot of non-fiction and fiction books. No, the reason is that they all, basically, say the same thing. They may promote themselves as being on different topics, such as negotiation, collaboration, maximizing organizational success, understanding the psychology of the workplace, etc., but really they all (or at least the good, and in some ways ironically, most successful ones) say “don’t be an asshole”. OK, I know that one of them is actually called the “No Asshole Rule”[1], but I meant it more generically, so if you want you can say “jerk” (although Sutton, the author of the latter book, is quoted as saying “other words such as bully or jerk "do not convey the same degree of awfulness".[2] Maybe I prefer “jerk” because lots of bosses are not complete assholes but are still toxic.

The main thing here is that these books are in large part written for bosses, so that they can become better bosses by working more effectively with their staff in their organizations. The amazing thing is how difficult it is to get this message through; these books keep appearing, keep selling a lot of copies, continue to be quoted widely and featured on talk shows and in speeches and, and often are cited not only by consultants (this is a big part of a consultant’s job, by the way, quoting business books) but even in meetings by the same leaders that they are aimed at – and who do not seem to be able to get the message.

I am reminded of a friend (a family physician) telling me about an interdisciplinary training session they went to (probably sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC) for chairs of all different medical specialties. One of the speakers was a psychologist who was giving advice on how to gain the respect of – or at least garner better performance from – employees and colleagues, and in this case, mainly other physicians. The advice was things like “listen to other people” and “even if you are listening (or not), act as if you are – look at them, nod your head”, and sometimes just “look at them”. Pretend you care. Ask about their lives and families. Tell people they are doing a good job.

My friend, trained as a family physician in an environment (and now a leader in an environment) where every department and residency program has psychologists or other “behavioral scientists” on the faculty, and where such skills as caring and listening are central to the patient-care mission, was amazed that the speaker was giving such emphasis to such elementary and obvious material.

Until she looked around the room, and saw the other chairs, from other specialties, assiduously taking notes. She imagined them writing down “look at other people”, “act as if you are listening”, “act as if you care”. They probably were!

I don’t mean to suggest that all family physician chairs are terrific and caring, or that all other physician chairs are insensitive boors, although there is often a selection bias in who goes into different specialties. I certainly don’t mean that this problem is limited to, or even especially prevalent in physician leaders. I just use them as an example because it is the group I am familiar with. Indeed, it is likely that they have a little less of this problem than other business leaders because their attitudes are modified by caring what happens to their patients, who are in fact other people. This behavior is more obvious in hospital and health system administrators who are not health workers but MBAs and CPAs, even though they also at least pretend to care about the health of other people. I can only imagine how much worse it is in industries where caring about people is not even an ostensible consideration, where the Friedman Doctrine, “maximizing shareholder profit” is the only driver.[3]  Of course, this Doctrine is not always accepted in business; a Forbes article once called it “the world’s dumbest idea”.[4]

So why is it that all these leaders cannot hear this and thus lead to more and more books being published with the same message? Maybe the problem is not that they don’t hear it, but that they are unable to integrate and act on the message. This could in fact be, in part, due to their personalities – that they are essentially self-centered, technocratic, un-self-aware, and really don’t care about other people. But it is also, I am sure, because these tendencies are encouraged, de facto if not de jure, by the organizations of which they are a part. After all, it was those organizations that hired them, that valued their technical skill and narcissism more than their people skill (“mistaking confidence for competence”, especially in men, as noted by Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review)[5], despite all evidence of every study ever done that it is the ability to manage people that makes an organization successful. Could this be projection? Are not the bosses hiring the lower-level bosses the same kinds of people? Could be.

People like to be complimented on their work, even more if they think they deserve it, and dislike being criticized, especially if they think they deserve it. Even if your boss says “Good job, Josh,” is a deadpan monotone, and you realize he has just come back from one of these “employee relations” seminars and it is not really sincere, it still feels a little good. Even if you know the person criticizing you is wrong, is completely vindictive or self-centered or has even blamed you for something someone else did, it still feels a little bad. At least to non-narcissists.

This is profoundly important. People like to be listened to. People like to be heard. Of course, people also like to get what they want, and this doesn’t always happen, and is not always a good idea. But a good leader listens and thinks about what folks are saying, because no one is as smart as a group of which they are a part. Whether the thoughts and insights of other people multiply yours by many factors or are just a little bit extra, it is more than you had alone.

Things you can do:
1.     If you are a self-important narcissist, try to change. It will be hard because you think this is why you are successful. But it is also why people hate you.
2.     If you hire leaders, don’t hire self-important narcissists. This will be hard because you might well be one yourself. Hire people who are not like you.
3.     If you work for a self-important narcissist, do not emulate them. Demonstrate how decent people act.
4.     If you want to be a leader, do it as a decent person.

It is not too hard to do this. It is not too hard to be a great leader. Partly, this is because the bar is so low. Maybe the answer is to stop hiring narcissists, certainly as leaders. Good luck on that…

[1] Sutton, RI. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Business Plus. 2007.

[2] I thought that there was a George Carlin comedy routine built upon the premise that all other drivers were “assholes”, who drove faster than you, or “jerks”, who drove slower. So you drove around muttering, alternately, “asshole”, “jerk”…but actually he said “maniacs” and “idiots”
[4] Denning S, ‘The Origin Of 'The World's Dumbest Idea': Milton Friedman’, Forbes June 25, 2013
[5] Chamorro-Premuzic T, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, Harvard Business Review, Aug 22, 2013,


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