Sunday, July 29, 2012


Spraying for Narcissists

I’ve followed with interest the gradually-unfolding story from New Jersey about Peter Burnham’s fall from grace as former president of Brookdale Community College.

Brookdale is a respected institution -- forward-looking in many ways -- and President Burnham deserves some of the credit for that.  But apparently he fell into a bad habit of mistaking institutional money for his own.  Remarkably, according to charges to which he pled guilty, he even continued the habit after he was fired.

This is the kind of story that does damage far beyond the individual event.  

Obviously, it feeds mistrust on campus, and in the legislature.  It feeds into the arguments by people with other agendas that public spending is inherently corrupt.  It creates turmoil on campus, especially as the truth comes out in dribs and drabs.  

It’s also not all that surprising.  

To clarify: I don’t know Burnham personally, and I have no basis to judge whether this was in keeping with his personality or a shocking departure from it.  My point is that the abuse of power is not a new, or shocking, story, and those of us who are entrusted with some share of it need to be mindful of that.

That’s becoming much more important than it once was.  The political climate doesn’t allow much room for error these days, and the internet makes sustained secrecy much harder.  Worse, a story that might once have been confined to local papers now lives forever online.  Small things that may once have been easier to hide are now much harder.

(Oddly, the opposite seems to be true in the sectors of society where the real power is.  The shenanigans at Citigroup and Barclays and Goldman Sachs absolutely dwarf anything going on in higher education, yet they continue, and even seem to get worse.  That double standard gets all the more offensive as it gets more dramatic.)

I’ve seen leaders with all sorts of different styles.  Although I have my preferences among them, I’m increasingly convinced that the really important distinction is between leaders who realize that it isn’t really about them, and those who think it is.  

Over time, the differences show.  The narcissists take liberties that others don’t.  They hold grudges, and get personally offended at disagreement.  They tend to expect deference in random circumstances, and to get visibly upset if they don’t receive it.  In my observation, gender and race aren’t critical variables; either you have boundaries, or you don’t.

Colleges that want to insulate themselves from the damage that unchained narcissists can do need the usual procedural safeguards against misconduct -- auditing, good financial controls, HR processes, etc. -- but they also need to set climates over time that don’t reward me-first behavior.  Folks who put themselves first can sometimes climb quickly, particularly if nobody is paying close attention or is willing to call them out.  And hiring committees need to be on the lookout.  On the administrative side, for example, someone who has a history of jumping quickly from job to job to job would raise a red flag.  If they never stayed in one place for more than a couple of years, and had sustained that pace for some time, I’d have some serious reservations.

But sometimes they can sneak up on you.  Burnham had been president at Brookdale for decades; that certainly passes the job-hopping test.  Brookdale has been clean enough otherwise that I have to assume that processes and internal controls are in place.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to sniff out the narcissists?  Are there ways to inoculate a college against them?

If it was easy, you wouldn't find so many hits when you type "investment fraud" into Google. Look at the guy, in the news recently, who stole a couple hundred million over two decades in Iowa.

One thing that might be worth paying attention to is that his scheme collapsed when the "regulators" switched to electronic bank records rather than (carefully forged) paper ones. That should be part of your institutional controls.

BTW, if you look at the office palace that guy built in Iowa, your diagnosis of narcissism would be confirmed.
It looks like another NJ CC President is following in Burnham's footsteps.
The sins of Citi and Barclays, especially given the possible involvement by the NY Fed, are mild compared to $1.2 billion theft of money in customer accounts by MFGlobal under Jon Corzine's watch. Why is he still walking free?

Good insight on the narcism.
I suspect it wouldn't do any good to spray for narcissists, even if you could.
For one thing, there might be unintended impacts on bloggers ;-)

For another, it's not just people who have developmental delays in emotional empathy who do stuff like this. Virtually everybody will take the extra cookie if they are the "leader" ( So the key is to give people either plenty of cookies, or exactly barely enough cookies, or to develop a policy and institutional culture of splitting cookies (or at least offering to split them).
I think that it is going to be difficult to screen out narcissists as possible candidates for positions of power and leadership, since it often appears that being a narcissist is an important qualification for such jobs. Now, not every dean, provost, or college president is a narcissist (certainly not true about Dean Dad), but I have found in my experience that a lot of them are. At Research Intensive Technological Institute where I used to teach, we had a provost who thought that he was a world-class expert in just about everything under the sun. He would issue forth edicts on just about every topic, even on those subjects with which he was totally ignorant, thinking that just because he was the provost, he was somehow infallible. Another faculty member described the provost as being not only a megalomaniac, but also a horse’s ass.

The system tends to select narcissists for such jobs. After all, one probably has to have a rather high opinion of one’s intelligence and ability simply in order to have the nerve to apply for such positions of power and influence. Such people are probably used to being told that they are “the smartest person in the room”, coming to believe that they are somehow the deserving winners in some sort of Darwinist struggle for survival. They are imbued with a sense of entitlement, believing that they are somehow deserving of high regard and esteem because they really are smarter than the rest of us. They see themselves as superstars, and every issue that they encounter somehow devolves into being all about them. Such people develop an exaggerated opinion of their abilities, thinking that they are geniuses and that every word that issues from their mouths is somehow Holy Writ.

Maybe an important safeguard against narcissists abusing their power would be to require that each high-level executive have a person around them who would always tell them the truth, sort of like the Fool in *King Lear* or like the person who would tell the Emperor when he is prancing before adoring crowds that “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This would give them a sense of humility, reminding them that after all that they are not God and are fallible.
How much of the blame lies on the person that committed the actual crime (in the various scenarios presented) and how much lies on the person(s) who watched it go down and said nothing. In this day and age I find it highly unlikely that a grand high muckety muck could get away with doing something like that and NO ONE notice that something fishy was going on.

Of course, then you have to wonder did people say nothing because they just looked the other way or because they were afraid to say something and lose their jobs?
I didn't think it would be possible to try to blame liberals for the financial crisis -- or claim that conservatives are unfairly oppressed by Obama -- but Edmund Dantes came through in the clutch.

Truly an Olympic-level performance. You, sir, deserve an AM radio show.
It's not hard to spot these people. The problem is getting folks to believe that they exist.
Pundit has it right - the hard part is getting folks to believe that the narcissists are bad news in the long haul. They can get a lot done, and if smart, can align their goals in a way that rewards the institution while serving their own needs.

IMHO, narcissists are also often bullies. Bullies with power hand out rewards to those who are (perceived to be) loyal and punish those who are not. In places with lifelong employment (often budget and admin staff have been at an institution for a long time too) in practice, people learn how to get by, looking away, not rocking the boat.

It would be different if higher ed had a decent track record of protecting workers over bullies, but we have all heard the horror stories of departments in viscous cycles of battles that last for years and years. Mostly we talk about the faculty caught in that situation, but what about everyone else?

No answers here.
I hear that if you convince them that a pool of water is a mirror, they'll drown themselves. But that might just be a myth.
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