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The conspiracy of fools: do you have to be a total jerk to succeed in life?

Experts tend to say no, but the myth of the narcissistic achiever is still surprisingly important

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, in addition to being owner of the social network X (formerly Twitter), feeling triumphant at a conference in Paris last June.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, in addition to being owner of the social network X (formerly Twitter), feeling triumphant at a conference in Paris last June.Chesnot (Getty Images)
Miquel Echarri

In 1985, according to the most illustrious of Steve Jobs’ biographers, Walter Issacson, the Apple visionary hit rock bottom. He had just turned 30 and had already conceived of objects as unique as the Apple Lisa, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface, but his creations seemed to be of no interest to the world. Depressed by poor sales and cornered in an office next to the broom closet, which he referred to as “my Siberia,” the youngest billionaire in the United States offered his resignation to the board of directors of Apple, the company he himself had founded 11 years before, and it was accepted.

In later years, John Sculley, the man who made the decision to dispense with his services, would say that Jobs was never “completely out,” that instead, he stepped back and took “a few sabbaticals.” But the truth is that the great contemporary tech guru would not regain control of his own company until 1997. Justin Wm. Moyer, a journalist with The Washington Post, considers that the humiliation suffered by Jobs in that decisive meander in his life story served to “temper his narcissism” and make him more sensible, more balanced and, in short, much more effective. Thus, his ultimate “success” would have been a direct consequence of both his talent (and the dimensions of his ego) and his ability to process and digest “failure.”

Moyer cites an academic paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology stating that a certain dose of toned down or nuanced narcissism can be “very healthy” and can give you a competitive advantage both in work environments and life in general. The study postulates the existence of a real unicorn of social interactions, the “humble narcissist.” These rare individuals are endowed with ambition, assertiveness, self-confidence, charisma, and strategic vision, but also have the ability to recognize their own limits and learn from their mistakes. In similar terms, BBC education correspondent Sean Coughlan states in an article that narcissists, despite being “unbearable” due to “their eagerness to attract attention,” have a magical quality. Their “mental strength,” derived from their “feeling of superiority,” is very useful for them when it comes to achieving success “in studies, work, or love.” That is, in (almost) everything that involves recognition and prestige.

Pathological personalities or the next evolutionary step?

Although narcissism is one of the personality traits that, together with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, forms part of the so-called dark triad, those who have it, in the opinion of Konstantinos Papagiorgiou, associate professor at the University of Belfast, “tend to be socially successful,” because they are not deterred by rejection and their need for attention can make them charming and highly motivated. A narcissist feels “better” than ordinary mortals and considers that they should be “rewarded” for it. For Papagiorgiou, it is evident that, in competitive environments, “if we dispense with moral considerations and focus only on success,” narcissism (balanced or not) is a very positive quality.

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, at a talk in San Francisco (California) in 2005. After a number of sabbatical years, he returned to Apple as a 'humble"narcissist.'
Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, at a talk in San Francisco (California) in 2005. After a number of sabbatical years, he returned to Apple as a 'humble"narcissist.'Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Do you have to be a total jerk to succeed in life? The question is not at all rhetorical. It is part of everyday conversations and there are many experts in leadership, psychology, and even political science who have raised it in these or similar terms. Of course, the answer will depend, to a large extent, on what we mean by “total jerk” and to what extent we consider narcissists, including nuanced or “humble” narcissists, fit the definition.

Steve Fishman, a journalist for The New York Mag, includes a very broad spectrum of egomaniacs, vain, individualistic, presumptuous, petulant, and unsupportive individuals in the elusive category of “jerks.” He concedes that such people dominate in positions of responsibility and leadership in free-market democratic societies, but urges his readers “not to become one of them” and invites them to explore more constructive, alternative paths towards success. In this way, he has tried to push back against the “high prevalence of narcissism” in popular culture, exacerbated in environments such as reality shows, social networks, politics, and certain types of business. In a sense, describing indefatigable self-promoters as complete jerks is already, for Fishman, an act of resistance against ambient narcissism.

On toxicity, cultures, and contexts

For Margarita Mayo, doctor of Psychology and Organizational Behavior and professor at IE University, individual success “does not exist outside of a certain context,” but depends on how a human group is organized and what its prevailing culture and values are. Consequently, “being a person with a narcissistic nature can be an advantage in environments where a toxic, competitive culture prevails.” May defines these as “organizations that promote competitiveness, have a lack of transparency, and place image above results.” It is in these pockets of systematic idiocy where jerks really succeed and proliferate: “Narcissists rise to the top of these types of organizations because they fit their values: the appearance of grandeur and the lack of empathy.”

In the opinion of author Fernando Botella, who is an expert in the training and development of senior executives, the social perception that jerks are the ones who dominate the top of the pyramid is widespread because “unfortunately, there is something real about it.” Botella affirms that, among the large number of company executives that he has had the opportunity to meet, “those with a friendly, assertive, and empathetic profile predominate, while the jerks are beginning to be a dwindling minority.”

Botella cites a “large joint study by the universities of Hong Kong and Iowa that shows how the hierarchy of “imbecility,” for lack of a better name, has receded in the world’s most competitive companies, gradually replaced by the friendly, democratic hierarchy that enables leadership based on common sense.” It has even happened in the United States, the greatest ”stronghold of corporate narcissism,” and to an even greater extent in the more social-minded and cooperative European Union.

Former US President Donald Trump showed hopefuls how to be a leader in his image on the reality TV show 'The Apprentice,' playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey (is there anything more narcissistic than having your own national golf club?)
Former US President Donald Trump showed hopefuls how to be a leader in his image on the reality TV show 'The Apprentice,' playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey (is there anything more narcissistic than having your own national golf club?) Icon Sportswire (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cameron Anderson, whom Botella considers “one of the international greats in the study of how organizations work,” has theorized about this “paradigm shift” that represents the decline of “men (and women, but above all men) who are heaven-sent for the benefit of rigorous but flexible and friendly group management.”The problem, from Botella’s point of view, “is that we have not yet completely fine-tuned our mechanisms for detecting assertive yet kind leaders. We still tend to confuse assertiveness with aggressive narcissism and self-confidence.” They are very different qualities, but, on a cursory examination, “a narcissist can pose as an assertive and empathetic leader, who is the true leader of the present and the future, and the type of profile that the most advanced organizations seek.”

Compete or cooperate

For Moisés Ruiz, a professor at the Universidad Europea in Spain and author of several books on management and leadership, “there are idiots who are successful, without a doubt, and many of them fit into the pathology that Sigmund Freud already defined as narcissism.” Ruiz is willing to admit that “in societies oriented towards extreme competition, whose ‘every man for himself’ attitude is fuel for social mobility, a certain degree of well-directed narcissism may even be necessary.”

“Mild” narcissists take advantage of qualities such as self-assurance or self-confidence that allow them to “easily find their footing in a horrifyingly competitive world in which other people, with perhaps a higher level of education and ability, tend to drown.” This explains why narcissists predominate “in companies that rely on aggressive expansion policies and, even more so, in the world of politics, where charisma, the great quality of narcissists, continues to rise.”

Botella insists, despite everything, “that the success of the egomaniac with their own agenda and lacking in empathy is very short-lived.” When they reach positions of real power and responsibility and, above all, find themselves in the position of managing human groups, “their limits and shortcomings become evident." The narcissist “can sail well with a tailwind,” but tends to employ a “scorched earth” policy with their selfishness and lack of maturity and perspective. In the long run, “individuals of this type are toxic both to the people who associate with them and to themselves.” If narcissism is considered a pathology, it is because “it is not usually compatible with a healthy, rich, and happy life.”

Mayo agrees on the “fundamental toxicity of narcissists.” In general, they are lousy leaders because they create “a rarefied and distrustful environment among the members of the teams they lead.” For workers suffering under a narcissistic leader, “high levels of stress that can become chronic, since the brain is in a state of permanent alarm that generates high levels of cortisol” are usually involved. In the medium term, this culture of systematic toxicity will cause “the best employees to leave,” with the consequent loss of human capital.

Promoting and cultivating narcissism is expensive. Unfortunately, as Mayo admits, studies continue to show that “narcissistic people are more likely to rise to leadership positions than other people with a similar level of technical expertise.” Narcissism is, then, the differential quality that serves to break the tie between candidates of comparable ability. It is the secret weapon that allows them to score the winning point in the last minute of overtime.

Mayo believes that this is due, as Botella also suggested, to the fact that narcissists are at first “attractive, charismatic, and intelligent people,” who also have the ability to project a false image of affability and closeness that makes the people they speak to feel “special.” Another detail that plays in their favor is that “human beings are programmed to avoid uncertainty and, times of crisis, when we are most vulnerable, we tend to trust people with narcissistic characteristics, because they seem to offer us easy solutions in the short term.”

Ruiz agrees that we have a tendency to attribute to the responsibility of “piloting the ship in troubled times” to “messianic and heaven-sent leaders, who tend to be great narcissists.” He believes that it has happened in contemporary politics, with the rise of leaders how suffer from toxic egomania, such as “Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, and company,” but also in private business: “The most paradigmatic example seems to me to be Elon Musk, who, thanks to his charisma, intuition, and drive, managed to succeed with initiatives like Tesla. But now he is failing miserably at X/Twitter, because his initial successes have ended up enhancing his egomania and have made him lose sight of the world.”

Ruiz ventures that “the lynx leader” is in crisis. The “strange decade” that we have lived through, with events as disconcerting and disruptive as the coronavirus crisis, has made us understand that “we cannot place ourselves in the hands of false prophets, like Donald Trump, who create their own fantasies and live inside their own story. The academic quotes Yuval Noah Harari, a great promoter of a thesis with which he agrees: “Contrary to what the most aggressive neoliberalism has been preaching for decades, evolutionary history rather shows that human beings truly progress when we cooperate, not when we compete. Individualism and fierce competition are recipes for disaster. It is much more fertile to compete based on mutual respect, cooperation frameworks and a generous attitude that accepts that economic and social activity do not have to be zero-sum games, that we can organize ourselves in such a way that almost everyone wins or almost no one loses.”

It is in this context that “the new leaders” fit. Profiles, concludes Ruiz, such as those proposed by Simon Sinek in his book Leaders eat last, “an eloquent antidote against destructive mirages in which it is stated, and rightly so, that a true leader, a good boss is the one who listens to you and protects you.” Botella also claims “connective intelligence,” the talent of a good leader who is able to make “communication flow and free cooperation bear fruit, quite the opposite of what narcissists do, with their tendency to apply a funnel, create a climate of terror, discouraging dissent and free thought, as well as always pursuing their own, selfish and petty agenda." For him, Trump and company are “absolute competitors who are ultimately doomed to failure.” Ruiz even ventures that it is very likely that they feel unhappy and like they have failed: “Behind a narcissist there is almost always an unhappy person, unable to reconcile reality with the excessive image he has of himself.”

Mayo points out, despite everything, that the “humble” narcissist that, according to Moyer, Steve Jobs became after experiencing failure, could indeed be a model of success and viable leadership: “Sometimes narcissism is confused with a healthy degree of self-confidence. I would say that narcissistic traits correspond to low-quality personalities. But a high dose of self-esteem and self-confidence does seem necessary to me to be successful in life.” More than toxins, perhaps it is more appropriate to talk about doses: “In my talks I put a lot of emphasis on the need for a paradigm shift that makes us move away from narcissistic leaders who know everything to authentic leaders, with a more balanced perception of themselves” .

Issacson and Moyer seem to believe that Jobs ended up resisting his tendency towards the dark triad to become a thoughtful and mature leader of the second type. Perhaps Steve Fishman would agree with this paradoxical idea: idiots really succeed when they find a way to stop being idiots. Although Ruiz disagrees: “If I have learned anything over the years, it is that narcissism cannot be cured.”

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