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The Rise (And Demise) of Financial Narcissism

The psychopathology of money and leadership

Regardless of political point of view, everyone has been truly sickened by this election process. It has brought to light a dark underbelly of contemporary American culture, rife with disappointment, resentment, lack of trust, high anxiety, and fear. Importantly, the process has made each of us question the essential ingredients that make for a great leader—should the focus be on policy, or character, or having the benefits of being inside or outside the system? It has put a spotlight on the role of money: How much of a role should money play in leadership? Is it a friend or foe? Something to admire or detest? Should I trust someone who has it, or feel more aligned with someone who does not? Money is (and has always been) a powerful influence on leadership and governance, but what happens when its role is overvalued?

With Financial Narcissism, Instead of money being a fraction of the whole, it becomes a primary organizing principle in which monetary assets become the defining element for self-esteem, social status, and community value. From this mindset, the best leader is the one with the biggest bank account, or the ability to move big bank accounts as he or she so pleases. The GPS for getting there isn’t clear, but it is ultimately about me….what I have and who I can impact. All or nothing thinking and feeling prevails: My valuation, or devaluation of you is ultimately based on whether you will help me get more money or money related influence.

At Money, Meaning, & Choices Institute, we have been blessed to work with, and learn from, some of America’s entrepreneurial success stories. Women and men who have built successful profit and non-profit enterprises with grit, courage, vision, respect, and integrity. While no two stories are alike, we have been impressed by their ability to combine personal strength, resilience, and smarts with respect, communication, and collaboration with their colleagues and co-workers—not only their inner circle, but all who have contributed to the success of their enterprises.

You may have heard about these leaders: Their stories do appear occasionally in the media, or in less known periodicals such as Corporate Responsibility Magazine. Many of them embody what we have learned about Affluence Intelligence: The remarkable ability to lead with clarity, humility, respect, and flexibility. They are great learners—while they are very strong individuals, they are willing to learn from others who have different ideas; to learn from their mistakes; to take responsibility for problems; reconcile and move on. And they use what they have learned to be resilient and go forward in new ways.

As people who have created great wealth, they know it is only a fraction of the whole of what makes for a successful business and successful life. They value mutuality and connection in their relationships. They are self-confident but not self-arrogant. And they are sensitive to the impact of their wealth on those who are not as lucky as they have been, working to maximize opportunities and minimize the damaging aspects of their wealth.

Five years ago I wrote about a rising epidemic of financial anxiety and uncertainty in our country. I described it as a money psychology sea change in our society: a shift from opportunity, a ‘we can do it' attitude, and a sense of possibility, to psychological and economic pessimism and contraction. This narrowing of socio-economic focus results in a parallel restriction of our mindset: in one's thinking, creativity and optimism about now and the future. The growth and relative stability of the wealth gap only added to many people’s sense of powerlessness and frustration. Adding salt to the wound are all the stories of sudden wealth, the young tech millionaires who seem to control the world by age 30. They are the role models for financial narcissism—They have it; how can I get it? Why don’t I have it….who is getting in my way?

Ironically, teamwork, collaboration, and connection are the keys for success in many parts of the Tech world. As one of our clients said, who went from the backyards of the rust-belt to great financial success, it was his ability to build great teams in which 1 + 1 =4.

Narcissism, in any form, is a psychological defense against its opposite—feeling worthless and inadequate. Financial Narcissism is the psychopathology of aggrandizing wealth as a means to provide protection against an inner Self that is angry, empty, and unsure of your true worth. Money is a great short term drug…we can use it, like heroin, to provide for short term anxiety reduction and pleasure. And if we make it our god, it will drive us into a roller coaster of narcissism, never ending cycles of manic greatness and depressive powerlessness.

There is a plethora of books on leadership that attempt to unpack and conceptualize its core elements. Most seem to agree that a leader who is both effective with tasks and people has a blend of key qualities, such as Courage, Foresight, Resilience, Humility, Integrity, and Competency. Keep in mind: It is not one, but all of these factors working together. Humility in this regard is not simple self-effacement; it is having the inner freedom and strength of character to know what you don’t know; it is key to learning, flexibility, and building bridges of collaboration.

So let us look for all of these factors in those who want to lead us, going forward. We need leaders who model a balance of power and humility, and do not promote the psychopathology of Financial Narcissism. And empower yourself: Give yourself the gift of increasing your Affluence Intelligence: Have your values drive your money not your money drive your values. Knowing that money is a tool to live your values, to help provide for your sustenance, care, and satisfactions. This is the single most important lessen we have learned from our successful clients. Regardless of the size of your wallet, know that your self-worth is not equal to your financial worth.