When Michael Maccoby wrote this article, which was first published in early 2000, the business world was still under the spell of the Internet and its revolutionary promise. It was a time, Maccoby wrote, that called for larger-than-life leaders who could see the big picture and paint a compelling portrait of a dramatically different future. And that, he argued, was one reason we saw the emergence of the superstar CEOs—the grandiose, actively self-promoting, and genuinely narcissistic leaders who dominated the covers of business magazines at that time. Skilled orators and creative strategists, narcissists have vision and a great ability to attract and inspire followers.
The times have changed, and we’ve learned a lot about the dangers of overreliance on big personalities, but that doesn’t mean narcissism can’t be a useful leadership trait. There’s certainly a dark side to narcissism—narcissists, Freud told us, are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. They’re usually poor listeners and lack empathy. Perceived threats can trigger rage. The challenge today—as Maccoby understood it to be four years ago—is to take advantage of their strengths while tempering their weaknesses.
There’s something new and daring about the CEOs who are transforming today’s industries. Just compare them with the executives who ran large companies in the 1950s through the 1980s. Those executives shunned the press and had their comments carefully crafted by corporate PR departments. But today’s CEOs—superstars such as Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Jack Welch—hire their own publicists, write books, grant spontaneous interviews, and actively promote their personal philosophies. Their faces adorn the covers of magazines like BusinessWeek, Time, and the Economist. What’s more, the world’s business personalities are increasingly seen as the makers and shapers of our public and personal agendas. They advise schools on what kids should learn and lawmakers on how to invest the public’s money. We look to them for thoughts on everything from the future of e-commerce to hot places to vacation.