The Narcissistic Organization: Offering New Perspectives on Functional and Dysfunctional Organizations and Their Leaders

Functional organizations are not places of the body and mind. They are places of spirit and soul. There is no such thing as a “secular” organization—for all contemporary models of organizational life are deeply embedded to the framework of ancient religious practices and have been nurtured in the soil of communal life and traditional societies. Functional and effective leadership requires a movement to soulfulness and spirit—terms and dynamics that are not easily understood or embraced in our 21st Century postmodern society.

Don Quixote and Narcissism

We must further look to a shift from the modern organizational emphasis on goal-setting and motivation (a distorted emphasis on the domain of spirit) to a postmodern emphasis on soulful work. This transition in a postmodern setting is difficult. We see a graphic and poetic illustration of this difficult transformation in the tale of Don Quixote. Quixote makes something special of the mundane and in this way engages in constructive (at least over the short term) narcissism. As an aging man he was not satisfied with the everyday. Hence he looked upward (for spiritual guidance) and backward in time (for historical guidance). He looked back to the age of chivalry and valor—a romantic era that was ending at the time Cervantes wrote his epic tale. Quixote elevates the inn’s sluttish serving girl, Aldonza, to a much higher status. She is transformed into the lady of the manor. He also restores her long-lost virginity. Quixote christens her, “Dulcinea.” Windmills become foreboding ogres. The barber’s bowl is transformed into a knight’s helmet. Don Quixote is typical of a narcissistic leader dominated by spiritual forces. He is moved to the spirit (“in-spiration”).

We see this dominance of spirit and the compelling nature of spirit enacted with particular force in the musical form of “The Man of La Mancha.” Don Quixote asks others to “dream the impossible dream.” Like Robert Kennedy, Quixote asks “Why not?” rather than asking “Why?” Like his older brother John, Robert Kennedy was assassinated before completing his own soul work, though clearly he was beginning the transforming journey during his short presidential campaign. Quixote was similarly denied a complete fulfillment of his own dream. This is commonly the case with modern leaders who dream great dreams. Like John and Robert Kennedy, Quixote transformed the people with whom he associated in seeking to fulfill his own dream. Quixote convinces Aldonza that her name is Dulcinea: “thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers.” Even the prisoners who hear the story of Don Quixote (as told by Cervantes, a fellow victim of the inquisition) are inspired. As the inquisitors lead Cervantes away for writing conspiratorial works, the previously depressed and downtrodden prisoners exhort him “to live with your heart striving upward.”

Reality and Narcissism

The story of Don Quixote inevitably leads to a discussion of and reflection on the role played by narcissism in the creation of leaders. To some extent, all leaders have a bit of narcissism in them. They revel to some extent in the attention they have received from other people and are pleased that other people respect, trust or at least follow the direction which they as leaders provide. The extent of narcissism will, of course, vary widely from leader to leader. At one extreme we have those leaders who can think about (or talk about) nothing other than themselves. There is the old joke (that takes many forms) regarding the narcissistic leader who spent a long time talking about himself and his many achievements. There is a pause in the conversation, at which point the narcissistic leader says “well that’s enough about me, why don’t you tell me a bit about the things that impress you most about me.” This is the extreme case of narcissism—yet it sadly is widely found in contemporary organizations. It certainly does not represent the type of generativity found in effective postmodern leaders.

I have already identified a second type of narcissism which is somewhat less obvious. This parallels Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s description of the covert narcissistic family. (Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, The Narcissistic Family, 1994, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) This is the closet or “quiet” narcissism to which many of us might candidly admit. At some level we envy the accolades received by other people. We are uncomfortable being on the sidelines at events where other people are the focus of attention. We smolder a bit, though soon dismiss our resentment and join the celebration. This too is a form of narcissism and it can serve as a barrier to effective leadership. At these moments, we quiet narcissists can learn much about ourselves and our own leadership challenges. Like Don Quixote, we must face our own reality.

Triumphant though Cervantes is in inspiring the other prisoners (and basking in his own theatrical glow), he ultimately requires Quixote to face reality and leave the dreams behind. Don Quixote must retreat from his narcissistic fantasy. Cervantes forced his fictional character, Don Quixote, to see himself for what he truly is. Quixote was required to look into a mirror, having lost in combat to the “Knight of the Mirrors.” This shattered his illusions and his dreams. The mirror is an instrument of vision and spirit, yet the triumphant knight is using a set of mirrors to destroy Quixote’s spirit. The knight is himself an illusion. He is actually a son-in-law of Quixote who has grown increasingly impatient with the Don’s antics.

The well-intended Knight of the Mirrors demands that the Don acknowledge he is actually an aging man of modest means. Quixote is jolted into “reality.” He has become a mad man who is dressed, not for a battle, but rather for a foolish masquerade. Like many postmodern leaders, Don Quixote is particularly vulnerable to ridicule and massive ego deflation. Ironically, we are most vulnerable precisely at the moment when we are most successful. We are balancing on a high wire and have a long way to fall. Don Quixote has gained many admirers and has won many battles against fictitious foes. He desperately wants to keep the masquerade going. His son-in-law won’t allow him to continue indulging his false spirit. When confronted with the mirrors, Don Quixote’s ego and spirit rapidly deflate. He is left an old and dying man, with neither illusion nor a will to live.

Don Quixote is thrown into depression, having suffered what psychologists call a “narcissistic wound.” He finds no support to match the challenge that he is forced to face in the mirrors. In many ways, Quixote represents the fundamental challenge of postmodern leadership. He only recovers his “sanity,” or at least his spirit, when his “support group” (consisting of Dulcinea and his sidekick Sancho Panza) come to his rescue. As Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman would suggest, Dulcinea and Sancho should help Quixote identify and honor his own distinctive “treasure.” Certainly, his compelling vision is to be honored, as is his devotion to both Dulcinea and Sancho. So, how does he embrace the vision, while also embracing reality and discerning what is and is not his reflection in the pool? Perhaps this is the challenge being faced by most men and women today who chose to lead postmodern organizations.

Narcissism and Personal/Organizational Dysfunction

Narcissism is usually framed as a defect of the individual personality—an overwhelming and ultimately-debilitating obsession with one’s self—a deadly fixation on one’s reflection in the pond. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman have taken a step forward in suggesting that narcissism can also be found in a family system. They have traced out the impact of this systemic narcissism on the development of emotional disorders and in the treatment of adults who come to see psychotherapists. If Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman are accurate in their extension of narcissism to this systemic level, then it would seem appropriate to speak even more broadly of a narcissistic organization, and to apply Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s many insights to the narcissistic dynamics of an organization.

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