You wonder what these three have in common. Well, let’s see.
To be honest with you, I am not a football fan. Truly, I know nothing about football. Despite that, my introvert husband and I have a little tradition of watching the World Cup. All I do is to pick some teams and cheer for them. I know, I am a disgrace of a fan.
Some of my teams lose, others win. But I noticed something that really surprised me. Whenever a team is losing the game, I automatically start cheering for it. Even if the team I initially picked is winning, I simply leave my first choice and cross fingers for the other team. I know. I am such a disappointment as a fan, am I?
I just can't help it! I feel like I am on the field and the effort, the anger or the sadness of the losing team are my efforts, my anger, my sadness. The only exception to that was Portugal. I simply couldn't empathize with them. Sorry guys, it's not you, it's only my personal dislike of Cristiano Ronaldo.
A week ago we had some friends over to watch the game. The teams of Argentina and France were playing. What a game! I was originally for France, but at the end, seeing the struggle of Argentina and the frustration of their fans, just tore my heart to pieces. So, again, what a surprise, I switched teams. Our friend, George, who is a big football fan, stared at me with his come on-don't-be-such-a-baby look and said nothing. Yes, I know, it’s embarrassing. But I just can't help it. I asked him whether he empathizes with Argentina. "Of course, I am," he said, "But it doesn’t change anything. They had great players but simply lost the match this time. Both teams made an exceptional game!".
Yes, he is a true football fan. He appreciates the game and pays his respect for everyone on the field. And obviously, I am preoccupied with worrying about what the losing players feel. So I fail to focus on the game.
Is there something wrong with me?
The world is a competitive place in its nature. You either play the game or lose it by default. Could you be a winner, if you feel too much for the loser?
They call it “empathy”. It is the ability to “understand and share the feelings of another”. (Oxford Dictionaries)
Ok, I am an extremely empathetic person. No news here. However, does it make me a loser? Or maybe I shall ask:
Are people who lack empathy, winners? Are they more successful than the rest of us?
To answer the question we should first find out who these people are. In psychopathological terms, the extreme lack of empathy is associated with narcissistic personality disorder. So, do narcissistic personality traits correlate with success? Simone Ullrich, David P. Farrington, and Jeremy W. Coid's study showed a positive correlation between narcissistic personality disorder and "status and wealth" in a male sample. The authors conclude that although personality disorders are often associated with life-failure, some of them, even considered psychopathological (like narcissistic personality disorder) could actually lead to an important aspect of life success: status and wealth.
Heh, how about that?
Of course, you don’t need to have a personality disorder in order to be successful. We all exhibit some narcissistic traits (or others) and still function within the norm. Furthermore, it was Sigmund Freud who first presented “narcissistic personality” to describe a certain character, which clearly falls within the range of normality. Narcissists are the people who are highly focused on their goals. They often are the innovators, the fresh wind of change. But please, don’t mistake them for altruists. They are the exact opposite of that. Narcissists innovate and break the status quo only because they like to star. They rarely doubt themselves. Narcissists usually are highly convinced of their own importance and superiority and miss to notice the others around them. And they simply lack empathy. They can’t imagine how other people feel. However, all these personality traits make them great leaders. They are the leaders of novelty. Thus, they are the leaders of our time.
In 2004, a brilliant analysis of Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalytic and a business counselor, concerning the narcissistic leader, won the McKinsey Award. In his paper, Maccoby discusses the rise of the "new leaders" who, thanks to the media and social networks, play as role models for many people.
As an anthropologist, I try to understand people in the context in which they operate, and as a psychoanalyst, I tend to see them through a distinctly Freudian lens. Given what I know, I believe that the larger-than-life leaders we are seeing today closely resemble the personality type that Sigmund Freud dubbed narcissistic.
According to Maccoby the lack of empathy could be a con, but it also is an inevitable pro for a leader:
But a lack of empathy did not prevent some of history’s greatest narcissistic leaders from knowing how to communicate—and inspire. Neither Churchill, de Gaulle, Stalin, nor Lao Tse-tung were empathetic. And yet they inspired people because of their passion and their conviction at a time when people longed for certainty. In fact, in times of radical change, lack of empathy can actually be a strength. A narcissist finds it easier than other personality types to buy and sell companies, to close and move facilities, and to lay off employees—decisions that inevitably make many people angry and sad. But narcissistic leaders typically have few regrets. As one CEO said, “If I listened to my employees‘ needs and demands, they would eat me alive. "
As it turns out, we need narcissists to keep the world going. But a narcissistic leadership surely has its downside:
Companies need leaders who do not try to anticipate the future so much as create it. But narcissistic leaders—even the most productive of them—can self-destruct and lead their organizations terribly astray. For companies whose narcissistic leaders recognize their limitations, these will be the best of times. For others, these could turn out to be the worst.
Don't get me wrong. I am neither saying that you should be a narcissist to be successful, nor am I suggesting that in the matters of wealth and success empathic people are a failure. However, if you want to achieve your goals, you can't be focused on your emotions all the time. You just won't be effective.
Let’s go back to my friend George – the football fan. He is deeply focused on the game and puts his emotions aside. If he was a coach it would be easier for him to dismiss a player for the sake of the victory. I, on the other hand, am highly focused on other people’s feelings. Perhaps, I would also dismiss a player, but it will probably break my heart. George would make a better coach than me and this doesn’t mean that he has a narcissistic personality disorder. Yep, George, relaaax!
I come from a family which divides people into two categories – the prosperous entrepreneurs who earn lots of money on one hand, and … the losers, on the other. See, for the last 25 years, my uncle has built a billion-dollar business. Moreover, he did it from scratch. He is one of the few! Unfortunately, we, the children in the family, have always been compared to his success. My career choice is a bit of disappointment to my family. But it’s nothing compared to the disaster which happened when my cousin, my uncle’s youngest son, who since childhood has always been interested in history and politics, announced that he would like to study political science. Yep, that’s right, he ended up in a business school.
Is my uncle narcissistic? Slightly. However, he is also a visioner. And he not only anticipates the future but creates it. He doesn’t lack empathy, though. He could be empathic. Sometimes. Once or twice a year.
Back to me. Am I never going to be a successful CEO? Probably not. I would be focused on pleasing my employees too much. But seriously guys, it’s OK! Actually, it turns out that I have found a perfect place for my over empathic self. A study, led by Jean Decety et.al showed that high levels of empathy in practitioners associated with decreased burnout, personal distress, depression, and anxiety, along with increased life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Although I am not a physician, I honestly believe that it applies to my profession, too. So, good for me!
You may wonder, why am I bringing up this issue?
Well, our modern culture is extremely focused on comparing and competing. We are all checking others’ Facebook profiles or Steemit wallets. But also, we are all so different. Imagine, we are fruits. I am an apple, you are a peach, he is an orange and she is a tomato (no, you didn’t misread it, tomatoes are fruits!). As an apple, I can become a bigger apple or a sweeter one (of course, I could become a rotten one, as well). But will I ever become a peach? No, I won’t. I would only try to be the best apple I can be: a sweet red juicy apple.
At the beginning of this post, I talked about winners and losers. In the end, I don’t believe success is all about that. There are not good or bad personality traits, neither are they good or bad career choices. I strongly believe that the most important thing in one's life is to find out who they are and where they fit the best.
Your dearest Apple, @insight-out
Jean Decety Karen E. Smith Greg J. Norman Jodi Halpern (2004), A social neuroscience perspective on clinical empathy, Journal of World Psychiatry, 2004, Vol. 13, Issue 3, p. 233-237
Maccoby, Michael (2000). Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons, The Harvard Business Review January-February, 2000
Simone Ullrich, David P. Farrington, and Jeremy W. Coid (2007). Dimensions of DSM-IV Personality Disorders and Life-Success. Journal of Personality Disorders: Vol. 21, No. 6, pp. 657-663.
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