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Does Narcissism Help You Succeed?

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A healthy, but metered dose of narcissism can be a very positive force, motivating people to take charge, take risks, and have the audacity to believe they can change the world. But unchecked, runaway narcissism is both repelling and pitiable at the same time. 

My good friend Giles is fond of saying “If you’re worried about coming off as too narcissistic, you probably don’t have to worry. The people who don’t worry about it are always the ones dancing too close to the fire”

Walking the Razor’s Edge

The relationship between narcissism and success is a bit like the early stages of a passionate love affair. The passionate energy between two people in a budding romance often grows in intensity and depth until it begins to level out, finding a more sustainable equilibrium. But in some cases, if that passion approaches addiction, it can quickly cross a line that sends it hurtling into destructive territory, where obsession, jealousy, and mistreatment live. Narcissism also walks this razor’s edge.

The Upside of Narcissism – Pushing Beyond Comfort

The point is that a certain level of narcissism is required to push people beyond their comfort zones, take risks, command the stage, and do interesting, creative things. But if it goes unchecked, narcissism can become an incredibly destructive force. And the worst part – While that self-destruction is plainly visible to everyone else, the subject is often unaware of how they are being perceived. It’s like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, unaware that he has hurled himself off a cliff.

When kept in check, narcissism can most definitely catalyze business success. I know many entrepreneurs who have found a way to walk on that razor’s edge, harnessing their narcissism to lead with purpose and remain strong in their convictions. Ditto for senior executives. Elite performing artists need a rather heavy dose of narcissism to get them up on stage night after night. And the best get even better in front of a particularly large audience. There’s no question that these people all exemplify the most admirable aspects of narcissism.

The Visible Downside

But the downside of narcissism is visibly DARK. I worked with a CEO for years who seemed to often wrestle with remaining on the right side of that razor’s edge. Rather puzzling is the fact that he could be charming and engaging in small groups. But hand him a microphone or present him with a thorny business challenge and he became Wile E. Coyote. One occasion, I literally counted each time he said either “I” or “me” in a 30-minute conference-opening address. I still remember the number – it was 117. And somewhere in those 117 words while he was busy hoarding credit for projects in which he was at best tangentially involved, he managed to offend his entire executive team, including me. And of course, he was blissfully unaware he had done so.

Narcissism’s Antidote – Self-Awareness

It’s totally OK to embrace your narcissistic tendencies. In fact, it’s highly advisable. But narcissism requires the counterbalance of self-awareness to keep it in check. If you’re a big personality and you’re not consciously reigning in your “look at me” antics, you are likely dancing too close to that fire. But those who find ways to harness and moderate their narcissistic power have the potential to become extraordinary.

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Brent C. Wagner