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Narcissus, Narcissism, and the Challenges of Knowing a (Good) LeaderPresident Trump has frequently been described in the news by journalists and professional psychologists as a narcissist, sometimes with the modifier "grandiose" or "malignant." In a recent poll "narcissist" was among the terms that American citizens most readily thought of when they thought of him. But before we think in detail about this diagnosis and its validity, we are going to go back over 2,000 years to explore the mythological origin of the term "narcissist" and the meaning of the psychological construct itself.
Meet the creators of this module, Norman Sandridge and Katerina Volioti!
- To understand the myth of Narcissus in the context of leadership as well as the current psychological construct of narcissism
- To consider whether a character like Narcissus qualifies as a narcissist and whether or not someone like him would make a good leader
- To evaluate popular news articles on Donald Trump as a narcissist according to their understanding of the construct
- To consider the pros and cons of the so-called “Goldwater Rule” which discourages psychiatrists from diagnosing someone with a personality disorder in situations where they have not personally interviewed the patient
- To consider the pros and cons of grandiose/narcissistic leadership
- Note: the module on psychopathy and leadership, She's Always a Woman, takes a similar approach.
The Myth of Narcissus
Listening for Leadership One:Use the following story of Echo and Narcissus from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17/18 CE) to identify five personality or behavioral traits in the character of Narcissus. Make specific reference to the text to support your identifications. For example, "in lines XXX-XXX we see Narcissus exhibiting Z-personality trait." (Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book Three. Translated by Brookes More. Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.)
 Tiresias' fame of prophecy was spread through all the cities of Aonia, for his unerring answers unto all who listened to his words. And first of those that harkened to his fateful prophecies, a lovely Nymph, named Liriope, came with her dear son, who then fifteen, might seem a man or boy—he who was born to her upon the green merge of Cephissus' stream—that mighty River-God whom she declared the father of her boy. – she questioned him. Imploring him to tell her if her son, unequalled for his beauty, whom she called Narcissus, might attain a ripe old age. To which the blind seer answered in these words, “If he but fail to recognize himself [Latin: si se non noverit; note the connection to the common ancient advice and Socratic dictum, "know thyself."], a long life he may have, beneath the sun,”—so, frivolous the prophet's words appeared; and yet the event, the manner of his death, the strange delusion of his frenzied love, confirmed it. Three times five years so were passed. Another five-years, and the lad might seem a young man or a boy. And many a youth, and many a damsel sought to gain his love; but such his mood and spirit and his pride, none gained his favour. [Note: the Latin here is multi illum iuvenes, multae cupiere puellae. | Sed fuit in tenera tam dura superbia forma: | nulli illum iuvenes, nullae tetigere puellae. This translates more literally as, "many young men, many girls had desire for him. But the haughtiness was so firm in his tender form [that]: no young men, no girls touched him.]
 Once a noisy Nymph, (who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun) mocking Echo, spied him as he drove, in his delusive nets, some timid stags.—For Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,—and, more than vapid sound,—possessed a form: and she was then deprived the use of speech, except to babble and repeat the words, once spoken, over and over. Juno confused her silly tongue, because she often held that glorious goddess with her endless tales, till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove's embrace, had made escape adown a mountain. But for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile; “Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense, shall be of little use; your endless voice, much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph was stricken as the goddess had decreed;—and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds of others' voices, or, perchance, returns their final words.
 One day, when she observed Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods, she loved him and she followed him, with soft and stealthy tread.—The more she followed him the hotter did she burn, as when the flame flares upward from the sulphur on the torch. Oh, how she longed to make her passion known! To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love! But now, till others have begun, a mute of Nature she must be. She cannot choose but wait the moment when his voice may give to her an answer. Presently the youth, by chance divided from his trusted friends, cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!” Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around, and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!” She calls the youth who calls.—He turns to see who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims, “Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns. He tries again, again, and is deceived by this alternate voice, and calls aloud; “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries, “Oh let us come together!” Never sound seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods she hastens in accordance with her words, and strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says, “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save, “Caress me!” Thus rejected she lies hid in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face with the green leaves; and ever after lives concealed in lonely caverns in the hills. But her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up her skin, and all her lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds—nothing remains except her bones and voice—her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear her calling in the hills, 'tis but a voice, a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.
 Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more, sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves; and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.—and therefore, some one whom he once despised, lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods, “If he should love deny him what he loves!” and as the prayer was uttered it was heard by Nemesis, who granted her assent. [Note: Nemesis is the goddess of vengeance/payback.]
 There was a fountain silver-clear and bright, which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats, that range the hills, nor any cattle's mouth had touched—its waters were unsullied—birds disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs that fall so often from the trees. Around sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees that shaded from the sun let balmy airs temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired of hunting and the heated noon, lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged, as if indeed a statue carved of Parian marble. Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo's, and his cheeks youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white. All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself:—he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt. And how he kisses the deceitful fount; and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck that's pictured in the middle of the stream! Yet never may he wreathe his arms around that image of himself. He knows not what he there beholds, but what he sees inflames his longing, and the error that deceives allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy, so vainly catching at this flitting form? The cheat that you are seeking has no place. Avert your gaze and you will lose your love, for this that holds your eyes is nothing save the image of yourself reflected back to you. It comes and waits with you; it has no life; it will depart if you will only go.
 Nor food nor rest can draw him thence—outstretched upon the overshadowed green, his eyes fixed on the mirrored image never may know their longings satisfied, and by their sight he is himself undone. Raising himself a moment, he extends his arms around, and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh, ye aisled wood was ever man in love more fatally than I? Your silent paths have sheltered many a one whose love was told, and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast have rolled away since your forgotten birth, but who is he through all those weary years that ever pined away as I? Alas, this fatal image wins my love, as I behold it. But I cannot press my arms around the form I see, the form that gives me joy. What strange mistake has intervened betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no, nor walls with closed gates deny our loves, but only a little water keeps us far asunder. Surely he desires my love and my embraces, for as oft I strive to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream my lips, so often does he hold his face fondly to me, and vainly struggles up. It seems that I could touch him. 'Tis a strange delusion that is keeping us apart. Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not! Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou? Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise. When I extend my loving arms to thee thine also are extended me—thy smiles return my own. When I was weeping, I have seen thy tears, and every sign I make thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips have seemed to move, that, peradventure words, which I have never heard, thou hast returned. No more my shade deceives me, I perceive 'Tis I in thee—I love myself—the flame arises in my breast and burns my heart—what shall I do? Shall I at once implore? Or should I linger till my love is sought? What is it I implore? The thing that I desire is mine—abundance makes me poor. Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire unknown to me before, for I would fain put off this mortal form; which only means I wish the object of my love away. Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run, and in my early youth am I cut off; but death is not my bane—it ends my woe.—I would not death for this that is my love, as two united in a single soul would die as one.”
 He spoke; and crazed with love, returned to view the same face in the pool; and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream, and ripples on the surface, glassy clear, defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth, when he beheld that lovely shadow go; “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me that I may see thy lovely form, for though I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke he rent his garment from the upper edge, and beating on his naked breast, all white as marble, every stroke produced a tint as lovely as the apple streaked with red, or as the glowing grape when purple bloom touches the ripening clusters. When as glass again the rippling waters smoothed, and when such beauty in the stream the youth observed, no more could he endure. As in the flame the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts in early morning 'neath the genial sun; so did he pine away, by love consumed, and slowly wasted by a hidden flame. No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white of his complexion fair; no strength has he, no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought for love so long: alas, that handsome form by Echo fondly loved may please no more.
 But when she saw him in his hapless plight, though angry at his scorn, she only grieved. As often as the love-lore boy complained, “Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned; and as he struck his hands against his arms, she ever answered with her echoing sounds. And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!” “In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words; and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!” sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master's beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body's place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.
Extra Credit: Identify all of the places where Narcissus is described as "white." Does Narcissus' whiteness presented by Ovid as a good thing or a bad thing? For your response consider the module on race and racism, American Pie.
Extra Credit: If you are interested in understanding the myth and reception of the Narcissus and Echo myth (with special emphasis on the often-neglected Echo, see this article by Rosemary Barrow.
Listening for Leadership TwoNow imagine that you are being asked to interview Narcissus for a leadership position (or vote for him to elected office). Describe five(5) activities that leaders are regularly expected to do in most if not all leadership roles (think of teachers, bosses, politicians, military commanders, coaches, parents). Based on your understanding of Narcissus’ character, explain whether or not he would be able to complete these activities. Would he be below average, average, or above average in performing them? Finally, do the behaviors that Narcissus exhibits in his myth seem more masculine, more feminine, or neither to you?
Narcissism and Grandiosity
Grandiosity refers to an unrealistic sense of superiority, a sustained view of oneself as better than others that causes the narcissistic person to view others with disdain or as different or inferior. It also refers to a sense of uniqueness, the belief that few others have much in common with oneself and that one can only be understood by a few or very special people. Additional attitudes and behaviors that serve to support and enhance the inflated self-esteem include admiring attention seeking, boastful and pretentious attitudes, and unrestrained self-centered and self-referential behavior--Elsa Ronningstam (Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality. 2005:78).
Forget about Narcissus: What is a narcissist?The Oxford English Dictionary defines narcissism as "excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centeredness." Yet when psychologists and psychiatrists seek to define narcissism they try for a definition that is much more technical, namely, a set of criteria that could be identified by a trained specialist through the direct observation of a patient, at least over time, and ideally might even be measured on a scale and compared to other similar patients. Ultimately, the hope is that someone with a given personality disorder such as narcissism could be diagnosed and treated.
Thus the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the "DSM" for short) describes narcissism thusly (pp. 669-672):
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
- Lack empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Listening for Leadership ThreeHow many of these nine criteria for narcissism in the DSM does Narcissus exhibit? Cite specific passages from the Echo and Narcissus story to support your answers.
Is it valid to try to diagnose a figure from art/literature, a figure from the historical past, or a contemporary public figure with a personality disorder?
Trump instead used the question to extol his own knowledge. It’s an example of what psychologists call “compulsive more-than behavior”: a deep need to never feel even slightly less than others in terms of knowledge, intelligence, power, or popularity. That need often arises when someone finds the idea that he could fall short of anyone on virtually any measure a profound threat to his sense of self.--Sharon Begley citing NYU psychologist John Montgomery
Listening for Leadership FourFind three articles in the popular media on Donald Trump and narcissism (here is one example to get you started). Who is the author of these articles? What are their credentials (e.g., education, professional position)? How carefully do they apply the nine criteria above to President Trump? What evidence do they supply to support their claims? Note the emphasis in the DSM-5 on "a variety of contexts" where the personality disorder of narcissism must present itself to qualify for a diagnosis. In other words, it's possible that someone might behave narcissistically in their professional lives (maybe they're a Hollywood celebrity) but be truly down to earth in the company of family and friends.
Since 1974 the American Psychiatric Association has discouraged psychiatrists from performing a diagnosis on a patient that they have not personally interviewed. This has come to be known as the "Goldwater Rule" after an incident in the 1964 presidential campaign in which over 1,000 psychiatrists declared candidate Barry Goldwater to be psychologically unfit for the presidency (you may read more about this event here). Since the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, many experts in psychology have wondered if they have a civic duty to violate this rule and weigh in on the mental condition of the current president. In a recent op-ed for the LA Times the past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Prudence Gourguechon, tried to work around this rule by applying the Army's field manual on leadership competency. Even more recently the executive committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association told its members that they should not feel bound by the Goldwater Rule (Jesse Singal has called for the psychiatric establishment in general to follow this lead).
Extra Credit: Consider in more detail the thinking behind the Goldwater Rule (see below how it is written up by the American Psychiatric Association). Can you think of reasons to keep it? Are there ways in which psychiatric expertise could be misapplied? Should we have more thorough procedures in place for assessing the mental health of our leaders, including the president? If so, what would they look like?
Section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics, the so-called “Goldwater Rule”:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
Do (grandiose) narcissists make good leaders?
Listening for Leadership FiveFor each of the nine behaviors of narcissism in the DSM-5, try to identify a leadership scenario where it might be beneficial or necessary for a leaders to exhibit that behavior. For example you might argue that (1) a grandiose sense of importance might seem charming to people or it might insulate a leader from the certain criticism s/he will face from others. If narcissists are so bad, why in your opinion do so many make it to leadership positions?
Extra Credit: Use and reference the article below by Watts et al to formulate your answer.
Suggested in-class activity
- Explore further the myth of Narcissus, particularly the ancient dictum of "know thyself", the irony being here that self-knowledge, something we typically consider crucial to leadership, is ultimately what ruins Narcissus. Narcissus' interest in himself, though he does not know it is himself, reaches the point of all-consuming fascination and obsession. Are there good and bad kinds of self-knowledge? Good and bad degrees of self-knowledge?
- Stage a debate about the pros and cons of the Goldwater Rule. Develop a future procedure for diagnosing the psychological health of political leaders that would hopefully earn the trust of voters.
- Stage a debate about the pros and cons of narcissistic leadership, especially in light of Watts et al's claim (above) that grandiose narcissism in presidential leadership is a "double-edged sword.
- Narcissism and gender: The DSM-5 (p.671) reports that between 50-75% of narcissists are male. Why might that be? Consider the question from an evolutionary perspective (i.e., what advantages might a narcissistic male have in passing on his genes as opposed to a narcissistic female?) and a cultural one (do we as a society value narcissistic males more than narcissistic females? If so, why?). Given that narcissism is more common among leaders, what challenges does becoming a leader pose to women who are not narcissistic? What challenges does this pose to our conception of leadership as primarily a masculine role?