Investors look for founders who exude confidence. They know larger than life personalities build huge companies. However, left unchecked, those same traits can lead to disaster when founders turn against their own teams or investors. The holy grail is a founder with a healthy level of narcissism, surrounded by a circle of trusted colleagues who are unafraid to call them on their BS.
Most founders have some narcissistic traits – and that’s not always a bad thing. These are people who need to get up when they’ve been beaten down. They should continue to believe in themselves, regardless of what happens around them. Most importantly, they can’t wilt in the face of rejection.
Narcissism, like so many things, lives on a spectrum — from mild self-centeredness and exaggerated confidence to a personality disorder with inflated superiority and a marked lack of empathy. The term “healthy narcissism” may seem like a misnomer, but for a startup founder, having some narcissistic traits can be the difference between being deflated by a scathing rejection letter from a venture capitalist and soldiering on with an increased drive to succeed.
The trick for the truly great founders and CEOs is knowing how to keep narcissistic impulses in check and harness them to succeed. For investors searching for a great founder, understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy narcissism is crucial.
What Healthy Narcissism Looks Like in a Startup Founder
To compete at a high level, especially to endure repeated failure and rejection, top performers need a bit of narcissism. To handle the risk and take the beatings, they need a strong sense of self and a willingness to ignore the “common knowledge” that slows others down. Narcissism provides a valuable function of keeping the self in tact when exposed to assault. And that healthy narcissism puts the pieces back together when the self falls apart.
It’s for this reason venture capitalists go out of their way to find CEOs with unusual self confidence and a je ne sais quoi that allows them to bend and shape the world around their vision. As it turns out, it’s that healthy but small dose of narcissism that can help a leader carry their company through the ups and downs inevitable to growing startup. However, more than a small dose of narcissism can easily turn an otherwise awesome founder into a bull-in-a-china-shop.
The Challenges of Narcissism in a Growing Startup
The very things that make narcissistic leaders exceptional can also make them difficult to manage or relate to. Steve Jobs’ narcissistic tendencies helped him launch Apple, but those traits also got him fired by his own board of directors.
When the line isn’t clear, narcissism can make it difficult for leaders to process the feelings of others. Narcissistic founders often fail to take in hard feedback related to their inconsiderate actions. In short, they do what they want and are unable to adjust when problems are pointed out. This behavior is a nightmare for investors who need an innovative leader willing to toe the line.
For the company, there are issues as well. When businesses achieve product-market fit, it can increase a founder’s vanity and turn their sense of “self” into something grandiose. Once that match is lit, unhealthy narcissistic founders can take on delusions of grandeur, making it even harder for them to acknowledge or take other people’s opinions into account. Fallout from such behavior includes alienation of teammates and poisoning of the company culture. As one can imagine, none of this is particularly good for running a company.
Keeping balance in mind, founders with a healthy dose of narcissism bridge the gap between their all-in drive for success, and harmonize with others as their company grows.
Channeling the Best from a Narcissistic CEO
For a CEO with narcissistic tendencies to be successful, they need to manage two control buttons – one of them the on-off switch, and the other the volume control. If someone has narcissistic tendencies but is self-aware, they can manage the on-off switch or turn the volume up or down as needed. They can say, “I will turn off my ego and be vulnerable with my employees, and turn the volume way up so I exude confidence when speaking with my board.”
Meditation can be a powerful practice to keep things in check. There is nothing better than meditating on the fact of impermanence to soften an otherwise rigid ego. Vipassana meditation in particular allows the practitioner to sit in the rising and falling of the breath until the ego takes on a rather supple quality, more akin to the bending strength of bamboo than the unyielding nature of a brick wall.
Leaders with narcissistic traits need at least one person they trust implicitly to call them on their B.S. One person who can humble them. One person who can step in when things go too far – not from a position of power, but of care.
This person can be a close friend or confidant, a therapist or executive coach, or a professional mentor. The key is that leaders with high ego have a confidential relationship they trust – allowing them to share openly and receive unfiltered advice to guide their actions into balance.
Raw and unmanaged narcissism can be a crippling personality flaw, but for a self-reflective CEO with the right professional support, a healthy dose of narcissism can help lead their company to greatness.
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