Laura Weis, used with permission
Source: Laura Weis, used with permission

The war for talent continues. The elusive high-flyers seem in short supply. Is the pool of these highly competent, creative, motivated, entrepreneurial, committed, innovative, stress-resistant (blah, blah, blah) people drying up? 

The problem is not only where to find these wunder-kinds but also how to manage them. “Creative” high-flyers are paradoxically delicate creatures who need careful nurturance.  A common problem with high-flyers is that they fly too high too soon. Indeed they are prone to the Icarus Syndrome.

Icarus was the son of the inventor Daedulus in the Greek myth.  Both got locked up by the Cretan king Minos but to escape the talented and inventive Daedulus made them both wings of feathers and wax. The wise father told his son the only "design fault" was that the wings might melt if he flew too close to the sun. Clearly the physics of the ancient Greek storytellers was not too good as the higher one flies the cooler (not the hotter) it gets.  But Icarus ignored the good advice of his wise father, flew too high, and due to the melting of his wings crashed into the sea and drowned.

It is not clear from the myth precisely why he disobeyed his father. Was he a sensation seeker prone to accidents and did it out of boredom?  Was he rather a disobedient child who liked to rebel?  Was he simply "cocking-a-snoop" at king Minos and beguiled by his own hubris? Was he a narcissist having passed out top of the self-esteem class of life?

We do not know. Indeed it is the function both of myths and case studies that they allow for multiple interpretations. But the modern derailed high-flyer bears a canny resemblance to Icarus. But how and why are they chosen?  What did the assessors miss? Or was the problem in the way they were managed?

It was probably a self-esteem problem or to use another good Greek word (and legend) narcissism. Narcissism is malignant self-love; over-bearing self-confidence; inexplicably high self-esteem. The problem for the high flyer is this:  you probably need a great deal of self-esteem to get the job, but you need to lose some of it while on the job.

The manifestation of too much, as well as too little, self-esteem can be both a cause and a consequence of management failure.  Some have long believed in the power and importance of self-esteem, which partly explains their self-confidence and assertiveness.  It is often surprising to see, particularly, young people of very average ability look so manifestly confident.  They appeal all to have passed 'Assertiveness 101' but failed 'Charm 101', telling you openly and frankly about their beliefs, problems, wishes and values, as if they deserve automatic respect or are fascinating on the topic.  They express little interest in others believing they are intrinsically interesting, important and love worthy.

The self-esteem industry believes that all sorts of nasty consequences follow low self-esteem—failure at school, delinquency, unemployment, crime, depression etc.  And yet we rather like the self-effacing compared to the arrogant.

Of course, one should clearly distinguish between the genuine and the fake article.  There are those who are genuinely humble and meek, believing that their ability and contribution are somehow pretty average, even unworthy.  The trouble with humility is that one can easily be abused by those with hubris, and be trodden upon.

There is, however, deep within Anglo-Saxon culture a respect for the amateur, self-effacing person who with sheer talent wins through.  It's the story of the hare the tortoise, David and Goliath and the victory of the humble and the meek, who shall inherit the earth.  Part of the appeal of the film Chariots of Fire depicted just an alliance.

But people with low self-esteem seldom get into positions of power.  Low self-esteem prevents risk-taking, bold decision-making, opportunism and openness to excitement and challenges, which are the stuff of success in business.  We all need enough self-respect for healthy day-to-day functioning.  We need to be sufficiently interested in, and confident about, ourselves to function well in the cut and thrust of business life.

It is those with seeming limitless self-esteem and concomitant hubris that are the real problem. But extreme narcissists are a hazard and not that uncommon among our captains of industry. They are often people completely preoccupied with being superior, unique or special. They shamelessly exaggerate their talents and indulge in addictively boastful and pretentious self-aggrandizement. They are often mildly amusing but narcissists often possess extremely vindictive characteristics.

The psychological interpretation of unnaturally high levels of narcissism is essentially compensatory. Many business narcissists believe they have been fundamentally wronged in the past and that they are 'owed.'  Their feelings of internal insecurity can be satisfied by regular adulation, affirmation and recognition. They yearn for a strong positive self-image to combat their real feeling of helplessness and low self-esteem.

One of the most frequently observed characteristics of the narcissist is capriciousness - inconsistent, erratic, unpredictable behavior. Naturally, most psychologists see the origins of narcissistic behavior in early childhood. The inconsistent parent (caregiver) who was attentive to all outward, public signs of achievement and success but blind to and ignorant of (or worse, disapproving of) the child's personal feelings.  Perhaps then, we should blame Daedalus, for Icarus's plight!

This inconsistency often leads to the young adult being confused and never developing a clear sense of who they are or establishing a coherent value system.  They are 'not comfortable in their own skin'.  This can and does result in a lifelong compensatory quest for full self-regard and self-assertion. The wells of the origin of the problem are both deep and murky, and passions they engender seem remorseless.

The narcissist is quite plainly dysfunctional. He or she fails to understand or appreciate others, be they colleagues, subordinates or clients. They often see people as sort of possessions whose major function is as an accessory to their pursuit of fame and glory. People at work are used to reflected their glory.  Do any of our current or past great business figures spring to mind at this point?

Personal and work relationships for narcissists are particularly interesting. If the narcissist's 'other half' is prepared to offer continual, unconditional, even escalatory admiration, all is well. But they have to direct all their efforts, all the time, to minister to the needs of their master to overcome the inner emptiness and worthlessness he/she is experiencing. Naturally, narcissists search them out because they are rare, probably equally dysfunctional, people labelled appropriately as 'complementary narcissists'.  They are complementary in both senses of the word.

Many high-flyers like Icarus, are narcissists. Indeed they find that their narcissism serves them well. They seem confident and given others confidence. 

What happens to high-flyers is this: Their strengths are noticed and they are fast streamed.  Whichever part of the organization they work in they tend to excel. If in marketing they tend to be ideas and action men; resourceful and imaginative.  If they are in finance they tend to be brilliant not only with figures but strategic planning.  They love number tumbling and "modelling the future".

But they tend to be forgiven in their faults, which are overlooked. The fact that the high-flying marketing executive is undisciplined, inconsistent, poor at paper work and egocentric is ignored and down-played. They can be unrealistic, impractical, and spend-thrift. Likewise the analytic strategists maybe prone to analysis paralysis; unable to influence others and prone to building up large departments of like-minded types almost like a university department. 

High-flyers like Icarus zoom ahead with company blessing. But their flaws, the wax wings, get noticed too late. That for which they are famous soon becomes that for which they become infamous. Known for their integrity they can suddenly be seen as rigid, intolerant zealots.  Known for their people skills they care dramatic labelled soft, indecisive, too tolerant of poor performance.

Alas, the very characteristics which helped one climb the greasy ladder to the top leads to the downfall. Irony? Poetic justice?  No; just bad selection and management.  And one wonders why Icarus was locked up in the first place.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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