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Book Reviews   |    
The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership
Reviewed by Eric D. Lister, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.9.1070
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by Michael Maccoby; New York, Broadway Books, 2003, 320 pages, $26.95

Michael Maccoby, a researcher in the area of leadership who is introduced as "a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and consultant," lays out his position and gives us some sense of his relationship with his material early in The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership: "The narcissistic personality, as I am defining it here, rejects how things are for how things should be." In addition, he writes, "I want to bring about a radical new definition of the term [narcissism] and the way we think about leadership."

Maccoby's juxtaposition of "narcissism"—a word steeped in negative connotations—with "leadership" is pointedly designed to jar, to open our minds and force a fresh look at a much-visited topic. So far, so good. He celebrates the value of boldness, creativity, a love of freedom, a willingness to ignore convention, and the investment of one's ideas with passionate energy. And he does so eloquently and convincingly. These traits are associated with what is perhaps Maccoby's highest value—visionary thinking. He acknowledges as well that these same traits, in unmodulated excess, become counterproductive.

Maccoby tells us that strategic intelligence, marked by five things—foresight, systems thinking, "visioning," motivating, and partnering—makes all the difference between productive narcissism and its pathological counterpart. These dimensions of strategic intelligence modulate and direct the raw power of narcissism, allowing its constructive expression. If this does not occur, the results are disastrous.

Although all this makes sense, and indeed has some utility in helping us think about leadership, I am at a loss as to why Maccoby feels that we need such a radical revision of the definition of a term that has a fairly clear and useful meaning in psychiatric and psychoanalytic circles. His use of the word "narcissism" stretches to include much that is better described in the language of "ego strengths," some behaviors that seem very much within the bipolar spectrum, and many examples of behaviors about which we do not know nearly enough to make assumptions about psychodynamics.

Nor do I understand why we are asked to embrace a new typology of personality (divided into the categories of erotic, marketing, narcissistic, and obsessive). To my mind, this is sloppy psychology, and if the intent is to make the sometimes abstruse concepts of one discipline (psychology) available to another (business), much is sacrificed and little gained in the effort. Maccoby's discussions of strategic intelligence lay out a number of useful capacities (forethought) and techniques (partnering) that serve to make any leader successful, regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of his or her personality. These points need no new psychology.

Maccoby is most interesting when hypothesizing about the interplay of social forces and leadership behaviors. He believes that the social, economic, or political upheaval increases the cultural demand for someone with charismatic personal power—in his terms, a narcissist. The risk, of course, is that either society selects a forceful leader who is inadequately bolstered by strategic intelligence, or the narcissist, unchecked, drifts away from self-restraint and becomes unbounded in appetite and ambition. In more stable environments, Maccoby suggests, there is less social appetite for someone who is eager to take on and reinvent convention.

If these are, for this reviewer, Maccoby's more thought-provoking contributions, most troubling is his need to advance his ideas about productive narcissism at the expense of first misrepresenting, and then devaluing, the contributions of others—Jim Collins, particularly. Of course, all's fair in the marketplace of competing ideas, but Collins, in Good to Great (1), has interesting lessons to teach from his study of a much more humble approach to leadership, lessons that deserve more than dismissal.

Interestingly, Maccoby, Collins, and I each place high value on visionary leadership, including the capacity to think boldly, hold views passionately, and challenge convention. I do not believe, however, that we gain very much by equating this with narcissism, or by Maccoby's typology of personality. Rather than this particular text, I would steer students of visionary leadership to the old masters in psychology, drama, and fiction—where the nuanced alchemy of personality, social context, and that which we call leadership is laid bare.

Dr. Lister is managing partner at Ki Associates in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Collins J: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don't. New York, HarperBusiness, 2001


Collins J: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don't. New York, HarperBusiness, 2001

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