In his excellent book “Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails” (Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 2007),Michael Maccoby describes how many narcissistic executives build companies only to then destroy that which they have built.  I have come across this phenomenon myself in my consulting practice.

Maccoby, who is a psychiatrist, uses Freudian theory to explain narcissistic behavior.  In his opinion these types are self-centered, self-assured, and very difficult to coach.  (As an interesting side note, as of 2011 the American Psychological Association has declared that “narcissism” is no longer a mental disorder).

I have a different explanation as to why narcissists are difficult people with whom to work.  It is an explanation that I find useful in understanding such executives, and it has enabled me to work with them well and without much difficulty.

Here is my insight:

Have you noticed how tired you get from learning something new, like a new language or a new discipline?  I am sure you became aware of how exhausted you felt trying to solve some complex problem.  This is because learning something new or solving a new problem is a creative process. You start the process with not knowing and end it with knowing.  It is like taking some kind of material and making it into a piece of art.

Creativity uses psychological energy which is fixed at any point in time. To maximize the utilization of this fixed energy for creation, whether it is to write a book or an article, or to compose music, or paint, or solve a problem you isolate yourself. You resent any interference or interruption.

Many people create when they have insomnia because during the night no one bothers them. There is no one to interrupt their creative process. Some people create when they dream for the same reason: there are no interruptions. It is no surprise that Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” while he was taking a bath. He was alone, relaxing, and all of his energy was available to solve a problem for which creativity was needed. It is the same with Isaac Newton: sitting under the tree relaxing he had the energy needed to focus on the apple falling from the tree, and to then think of the Universal Law of Gravity.  Had he been busy doing something else he may still have noticed the apple, but he may not have processed the information.

People do not solve problems or create anything when they are doing something like chasing a bus or trying to make a flight on time. They need peace and quiet and some semblance of order so that all their energy can be focused on what they want to solve.

The creative process requires and uses lots of energy because it involves making non-programmed decisions.  These are decisions that you are making for the first time, like learning how to drive a stick-shift car or driving for a first time in a foreign country, is exhausting.

Programmed decisions are just that—an automatic menu of options in your brain of things you have already done.  You subconsciously select, press play, and go forth without extra energy spent.  For example, if you feel the need to use the restroom you simply go.  You don’t need energy to think about it.  Or when you’re driving home from the office, you sit, start the engine, and end up at home.  Do you remember all the details of the drive every day?  No, because you have driven the route so many times that your eyes got programmed to inform the brain what to do at each point.  Only if something unusual happens do you remember the drive that day.

Non-programmed decisions are decisions you make for the first time.  There is no ready-made option on the menu to select.  Instead you must create a custom order.  Thus you do not have the luxury of doing something else simultaneously (multitasking) as you may be able to when your body is reacting to programmed cues.

So why then are narcissistic executives narcissistic?  Why are they generally terrible listeners who recognize only two choices to everything: “my way or the highway”?

Because to create they need to conserve energy.  This means they must shut people out who question and challenge them because it robs them of energy.  That helps them keep the energy available for what they need to use it for, which is creating.

Please notice that it is not only executives who are narcissistic.  Most creative people, artists of any kind, are somewhat narcissistic.  And the more creative they are the more narcissistic they become.  It is like opera singers who become Prima Donnas, i.e. very narcissistic.  Maria Callas and Renee Fleming are recognized for their art, not for being agreeable.

So what is my secret for handling these types?

The way to successfully relate to creative/narcissistic executives is to recognize their need to conserve energy.  I never, for example, ask for a meeting when they are pressured for time. I try to find a place and time when they are relaxed. Next, I make sure the meeting is not crowded with people – the more people present the more energy gets used.

I do not overload them with information; I deal with issues one at a time, slowly. If you have too many issues on the table they will get highly irritated. Now you know why (too much energy required!)

I let them speak whenever they want to and it is ok if they interrupt me.  They need to download their thoughts as they have them, because if they do not, energy is split between dealing with what they want to say and what they are thinking about.

I do not prematurely react to what they say, but instead take note of it, maybe even write it down, and then continue with my presentation.  I do not allow them to get me into a rat hole of discussion, meaning I let them download their information but do NOT let them derail my presentation.   If they want an answer to their thinking right then and there and I am not ready to give it I say: “I have taken notice. Let us get back to it later.”

I also watch their eyes. The moment we lose contact because I see that they are daydreaming or “out to lunch”, it means to me that they are processing information and all of their energy is taken. At that moment I need to stop talking and let them focus on what they are thinking without disturbing them.  I keep quiet. I start talking again when their eyes become focused.

Narcissism is a byproduct of creative thinking, and thus is a necessary evil if we want the rewards that creativity can bring.

Do not judge narcissists.  Enjoy them and enjoy their contributions.