03 July 2022 16:43:40 IST

Kamal Karanth is CoFounder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing company he has been building since 2017. Before turning an entrepreneur, Kamal worked as MD of Kelly Services and as Director APAC for Randstad, where he built teams that grew and created extraordinary results. Today, his team members are making an impact as leaders across the talent acquisition, HR, and staffing domains. A movie buff and cricket enthusiast, Kamal is a believer in relationships and has been writing monthly columns for The Hindu BusinessLine since 2016. LinkedIn ranked him among the top voices of India in 2020 for his consistent influencing blogs and vlogs around workplace dynamics. He is a talent specialist in RPO, IT staffing, and executive search.

How we create narcissistic leaders

Some workplace cultures nurture CEOs who are self-important megalomaniacs | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Did you notice her Louis Vuitton bag and the knuckle rings she is wearing? That looks like Tiffany’s, my god, she has got class and taste,“ whispered my colleague. She was admiring our CEO who was in town to oversee a global acquisition. Many of us were worried about the number of jobs getting axed due to the merger, but some were distracted by the CEO’s fashion diva persona.

In today’s world, some leaders — Elon Musk, to cite a case — are larger than life, and everything they do is studied in detail. Look around your workplace through the lens of its people, brand, culture, and organisational context, and ruminate over what you admire the most?

You shouldn’t be surprised if what’s keeping you glued there is a set of people or maybe some of the leaders you work with. It’s quite natural for many of us to look up to the CEO or leaders we work with. One can’t help but get attracted to the narrative about the leaders.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that some leaders are also guilty of implicitly advocating the self-appreciating culture to suit their influence, which can breed more narcissistic leaders over a period. What are those sets of practices that create leaders who become self-obsessed?

Leader vs team

Every time there is a breakthrough or a transformation, who gets the credit or is spoken about the most? Listen to the descriptions of those feats; it would always be about the leader’s decision, vision, or idea, which gets lauded. If organisations are in a generous mood, the team does get a mention, but the acknowledgement comes often as an afterthought.

Many induction and success stories of enterprises are told through the anecdotes of leaders, and hardly ever attributed to the organisation’s culture and processes. These subtle but important cues get picked up by all, and no wonder many of us tend to copy such leaders. Though we claim to be ‘people first,’ it tends to be ‘leader first,’ which creates more self-loving C-Suite leaders.

Optimum tenures

Enterprises tend to boast about the lengthy tenures of their leaders in their employer branding initiatives. Some tend to tout their leaders’ stability to negate the high attrition at the entry and mid-level. When you have leaders in the same role for decades together, the possibilities of comfort with stakeholders, complacency about performance, and entitlement naturally increase with a growing number of internal sycophants.

Some leaders find it challenging to stay grounded when their tenure exceeds a certain threshold as checks and balances on their behaviour become difficult to enforce. This is an even more complicated puzzle to solve if promoters are CEOs. However, many MNCs provide timely cross-functional roles and overseas postings to mitigate the people-related dependencies and risks. Moreover, longer tenures don’t help the organisation’s financial returns either.

A 2013 HBR study recommends an optimal tenure of 4.8 years for CEOs after studying 356 American companies, including brands such as Mastercard, Pfizer, P&G and GE. Their recommendation stems from observations that early-stage CEOs seek information in diverse ways, combining external and internal resources. This deepens their relationship with customers and employees alike.

The study goes on to observe that as CEOs become more entrenched, they rely more on internal networks making them more risk-averse, increasing their attachment to the status quo and making them less responsive to vacillating customer needs.

Nature or nurture

Let’s also admit that many of us adore these maverick leaders for the transformation they have brought in due to their non-conformist attitude. It’s also true that the ecosystem around them has nurtured this ability in them. We possibly think of it as their nature or special ability.

Still, if we carefully look at the various rituals and communications of the enterprises, we must admit that we might have nurtured the good as well as the destructive behaviours collectively. While their cognitive flashes of brilliance have helped the organisation, their boorish and bullying behaviour also harms people around them psychologically and financially.

Difficult to desist

The problem is that we have got hooked on confident leaders, and this attention has turned us from fans and followers to even sycophants in some cases. We can’t help but remember how Elon Musk was widely commented upon when he sported a new haircut and announced that he did it himself. He was ten minutes late for the last Twitter townhall, which was once again news.

If you look closely within your organisation, would you also find such leaders we have nurtured to become larger than life and now are difficult to contain? Do we all still follow the textbook of promoting the most confident-looking, tough and articulate colleagues to lead us to enterprise success? Then, hold on.

An interesting study, by psychological scientists Rule and Tskhay of the University of Toronto, negates this widely held perception. They had 140 college students rate the CEO mugshots for the facial traits of warmth and power, previously found to be associated with perceptions of leadership. 

They were surprised to find a significant negative relationship between actual net profits and CEOs rated highly for warmth, suggesting that the warmer the perception of a CEO, the less profitable their company was likely to be.

In today’s world, when public scrutiny of companies in the ‘phygital’ world is overwhelming, the face of the company — the CEO or founder — needs to save blushes of their stakeholders. But, in many cases like Uber, the damage has already been done?