Dr. Scott Boswell, who’s a dynamic financial executive with more than 35 years of investment management experience. Scott has strong practical know-how and developing and offering innovative financial solutions. He focuses on the manifestation and impact of CEO narcissism. The leadership experience he had helped him in his corporate and business leadership positions and narrate how painful it is to accept that there are leaders that aren’t great leaders, but from those people, we learned more about what kind of leader you want or don’t want to be.
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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What Is Positive Narcissism? Learning From Expert, Dr. Scott Boswell
In this episode, we have Dr. Scott Boswell. He’s a dynamic financial executive with more than 35 years of investment management experience. Scott has strong practical know-how in developing and offering innovative and financial solutions. He holds a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Missouri St. Louis, where he focuses on the manifestation and impact of CEO narcissism. Dr. Boswell also holds a Master’s of Business Administration degree from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s of Arts degree from Westminster College.
In addition to his Chartered Financial Analyst designation, he’s a certified Employee Benefits specialist. Scott held leadership roles on a variety of charitable and industrial boards, including the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Missouri Kansas City. He’s a board member of the University of Missouri Kansas City Foundation.
He’s the President of the board for the Grammy Award-winning The Kansas City Chorale, past President and board member of the Boy Scouts of America-Heart of America Council. He’s a distinguished Director and past Chairman of the board of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. He’s an emeritus board member of St. Luke’s Health System Foundation and past Director of the American Royal. He’s a past trustee of Westminster College.
We have a special guest, Dr. Scott Boswell. How are you doing?
I’m doing terrific, Kevin. It’s great seeing you.
I am happy to see you. I want to thank you for sharing your expertise with our readers. I’m excited to hear more about this topic that’s near and dear to my heart as well. Scott, before we hop into learning about the positive narcissist, tell the readers a little bit about yourself, your history, and what you’re working on.
Thinking back on how I came across an interest in this topic, it dates way back to my youth. As a young person, I got extremely involved in various youth organizations, youth leadership, and, in particular, the Boy Scouts. It’s interesting. When I was thinking about the story, I was a volunteer for the Boy Scouts nationally. I was a couple of years ago.
You can learn from bad leaders.
Dr. Robert Gates was the head of the CIA. He was the Secretary of Defense under multiple presidents of both parties. He’s truly the picture of a great leader. He talked about that his first leadership experience was as a Patrol Leader of a Boy Scout. Thinking back, I had that same experience, our first leadership experience with them. The passion for leadership started at that point and it ebbed and flowed both in practice and academically through my undergraduate and graduate work and then ultimately in the workplace.
I was always with an eye on hopefully becoming a corporate leader. About seven years of my career, it took hold. I was able to use those leadership skills in various corporate and business leadership positions. You’ll see in my research that there’s a dual path. The business that I’m in is the business of finance. How do we maximize the wealth of individuals and organizations such as philanthropies and that type of thing?
At the same time, I had these leadership roles and have this passion for what makes a great leader. Probably the early a-ha that I had as an employee was that as painful as it may have been to work for people that weren’t great leaders, especially ones that were bad like the ones that you’ve talked about in your prior podcasts, I often learned more from them. I learned more from what I didn’t want to be as opposed to what I wanted to be. That was the original journey into leadership dating back to my youth through my early days as a manager and as a leader in Corporate America.
I didn’t expect that to be your answer. Why do you think that is? What was the genesis of that learning? Do you remember it?
This gets to the root of how we all end up in various positions. Quite frankly, growing up not being the cool kid, the way you can overcome that is to become the leader of the group, to be able to impact how people acted as opposed to having to react. That’s where it originally stepped in and the passion developed from there.
The topic of the positive narcissists, I know when people first hear about that or first read that, they’re scratching their head like, “What is that? I’ve never even thought about that.” Why is that particularly interesting for you?
First of all, I had a dear friend of mine who acted as an executive coach for me during my career. When we’re going through our dissertation processes, that said that your dissertation is a me-certation. Looking internally, I know that over my time as a leader, there’s something about a sense of self. What does that mean? I wanted to go deeper into that. From a purely academic standpoint, when you and I were doing our doctoral work, I became fascinated.
As I read the literature, there were many positive things about the things that you would expect, servant leadership, and the types of things that we as a society characterized as good. Especially when you got into dark triad traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, more is worse, and less is better. When I looked at leaders operating, quite frankly, some of the examples are in the political environment where we’ve seen all sorts of representation of narcissism in our politics.
What hit me first is the need for narcissism or a level of situational narcissism. Do you have to counter a narcissist with a narcissist in a competitive situation? The more I dug into it, I thought, “As human beings, we all have an ego. It’s a scale.” The first thing I’ll say is when I talk about narcissism, I’m not talking about narcissistic personality disorder where it’s debilitative. We can go there and we can talk more about that.
At the other extreme, there’s a lack of ego or a lack of a sense of self. In the middle, there are these components of narcissism that we all have. The question is, what’s the right level? Yes, it’s the positive narcissist. Even more so, an optimal level of these traits to see what makes us a great leader. Quite frankly, does that change over time? Do you change over time? Does the need change over time? Is it situational? Those are all of the things that are interesting to me. Not trying to focus so much on is narcissism good or bad, but what are the components of ourselves that make a great leader?
Everybody has a basic definition of a narcissist. If you were to describe to us what a positive narcissist could look like, how would you describe that? What trait would one be looking for?
An example is that a healthy narcissist might have an outward sense of self-confidence, where an unhealthy narcissist would be grandiose. A healthy narcissist enjoys leading. They may enjoy power. Certainly, if you’ve given all of the challenges that go in with being a leader, whether it’s in philanthropy, in business, in government, who wouldn’t want to take on that challenge if there wasn’t a level of enjoyment? The extreme sense of that is the person that pursues power at all costs and lacks the normal inhibitions in those pursuits. It’s all about them.
Thank you. It seems like the way you described it that if I’m reporting to a narcissistic leader, I probably wouldn’t know it until they got to that less than optimal level until they got off the rails a little bit.
It’s interesting. This is a study that you and I did together with one of our friends where we assessed employee work attitudes. We looked at those different types and levels of narcissism and they line up with that. They like leaders that have a high level of self-confidence. They like leaders that balance their concern for others with the idea that they’re trying to promote. Once it gets to that outside bound, then you start to get into the realm you studied so much, which becomes toxic.
You had mentioned before, do these optimal traits change based on situation or circumstance? Tell us a little more about what are your thoughts or any hypothesis that you have. If you look at narcissism on a scale, when someone’s swinging over into the traditional level of narcissism that we all want to avoid, what situations or circumstances do you think cause that?
Find an optimal level of CEO narcissism.
The example that has been popularized in culture, especially with Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, is the journey of Steve Jobs. Early on, here he was as the creator of Apple. There are some pieces in psychology and Isaacson talks about it in his book himself. I want to be careful here because you and I both have our doctorates in business. We’re not psychologists. I’m not diagnosing someone as a narcissist. It would be easy to say that Jobs was assumed to be a narcissist, that drive, that sense of self, that sense of, “I’m going to make it happen.” His co-workers called it the Jobs distortion field. Create something great.
Apple wouldn’t have been Apple now. Situationally, a startup has to conquer challenges early on. Some of those traits and behaviors can be beneficial. You run Apple as a steady-state company. He’s dealing with a board and with investors and all of a sudden, they fire him. He goes off and does Pixar and other things that are great. When that company’s back on the decline, he comes back in, he reinvigorates it, and he makes tough decisions. Those are situational, where early-stage companies are situations that require a leader to drive you through difficult circumstances. Those are often at the beginning of the life of a company and the end of life of a company.
When we’re starting up, we’re needing time for reinvention, out of the ordinary situations.
Look at circumstances where industries are dying. When you’ve got a dying industry, the one that I’ve discussed in a couple of my papers and ones that we’ve co-authored is the railroad industry. You’re in the mode of cutting expense, driving efficiency. Quite frankly, in many of those instances, you have to care more about the shareholder, more about your ego and success than the fate of all those employees that you may be jettisoning. You can spin that to its positive and say, “Yes, but everybody can be out of a job if I don’t get my job done. If I can save 50% or 25% of my employees, isn’t that better than us going out of business?” You got to work in several different ways.
Thank you for sharing that perspective. One of the things I’m always curious about is hiring and managing in the environment nowadays. As you think about positive narcissists, I want to first start with a question of, how do I know what the optimal level is when I’m talking to people? What am I looking for? I don’t want that pendulum swing after I hire somebody.
There are two answers. There’s the anecdotal answer, which is the Jobs example. What do you need for your circumstance? How do you measure that in an interview setting? It comes down to the experience of interviewing, the experience of trying to read people. Personally, this is why I’ve loved the programs that the organization I work for who. It allows interns and trainees. As you know, it’s tough to assess someone in an interview setting. They’re putting on their best face. They’re selling themselves to you. The more time you can have to view that person, the better.
My dissertation work was done trying to find an optimal level of CEO narcissism. I based that optimal level on the success or it was based on the measurement of stock price performance. It was the financial success and the shareholder meant successful CEO. Many could argue that there’s a lot of other factors that play into that.
I used the California Psychological Inventory as a tool, which is that. It’s an inventory of various psychological characteristics. There have been several studies that have been done that say that you can look at those characteristics in various bundles and determine how they drive narcissistic traits or how they measure narcissistic traits.
My research has been quantitative in nature, establishing the narcissism composite from 0 to 100, with 50 being the midpoint of an individual. The interesting thing is the midpoint of our CEO study was closer to 58 or 59 on that scale, someone at that level in the organization. We found that the optimal was a little bit lower. It’s lower than the average CEO but above the general population.
Lesson learned to all the HR managers out there. Utilize behavioral interview questions, reference checking, probationary periods, use all that stuff to your disposal. You’re right. The reliability of the Q&A interview is not going to help you here.
The more you can take all of those tools together to make that decision, including outside assessment, whether it’s the California Psychological Inventory or others, find people like yourself that have a lot of expertise in this space to help guide you do in the decision-making process.
Let’s flip it to management. Let’s flip it to you now hire. Let’s say you got a CEO who is exhibiting some of these grandiose behaviors. Anecdotally or from a research standpoint, what would be things you would do to mitigate and recommend to assist with that?
There are two ways to look at it. How can you manage it? Can it be moderated or changed? In my mind, you look at the negative characteristics that come with too much narcissism. One example is that you tend to take situations good or bad and make them sound great because it aggrandizes yourself. Putting a pretty tight reporting structure around good and bad so that you truly get a picture of the performance of the organization so that grandiosity is not driving, filtering data.
If you’re a CEO or to a president, if you’re talking to a division head, that would be exhibiting those higher levels of narcissism. The other is, can it be coached? This is a topic for future research for me. Part of this is being a hopeful person. With solid coaching, with someone that understands you and understands the phenomena of those traits, you can change over time. It’s like anything else. It’s helpful to try to gain a measurement or a baseline getting back to that idea of an assessment, whether it’s in a psychological setting or testing setting to understand where you are and how did you come to those beliefs.
We all have this background. There’s a lot of studies on children of alcoholics and addicts and how they may exhibit higher levels of narcissistic traits because that was their protection mechanism. The other thing that I found in practice and not in research is that often, traits that got you there are the ones that are going to keep you there. Meaning that strength of personality in a domineering manner may help you rise to the ranks. All of a sudden, you’re managing a more complex function that requires a high level of emotional intelligence. If you keep going back to the same tools to lead or to what got you here, it may not get you to that next level of your career.
Thank you for that. The message I’m hearing is with this coaching, especially since a lot of these things may have been derived from childhood experiences. You can’t expect somebody to go to 1 or 2 executive coaching sessions and be a changed person. It’s important to have that patience and have the proper guidelines from an expectation standpoint. That’s great. What other wisdom would you want to leave our readers with as we think about positive narcissistic tendencies in the workplace?
Often, traits that got you there are the ones that are going to keep you there.
First and foremost, from a general standpoint, what we think is bad is not necessarily all bad. We all have components of both the typical bright side traits, the things that are cultivated as, “I wish I had a leader that exhibited all those.” Some of those that historically we’ve considered the dark side can be additive depending on the leadership circumstance.
The point that you brought home, which is to use the tools at your disposal in your hiring and, quite frankly, in your behavior. How do you evaluate yourself as a leader to be better going forward, be introspective? Personally, I’ve always had a tough time separating that beating myself up for a situation where I didn’t perform well as opposed to separating myself from it and saying, “What can I learn?” Not to say, “You did poorly.” “What could I have done better?” When faced with that circumstance again, you use it to your benefit.
That’s insightful. I want to bring you back for part two one day. I’d love to do that. As we wrap up, how can people reach you?
I have an executive role at the Commerce Trust Company. The comments that we’re making here are mine. I’m not representing my organization. I’m representing myself as an academic and as a friend of yours. The best way to reach me is through my personal email, which is Scott.Boswell@Gmail.com. I’ve got a website under construction, which is ScottSBoswell.com. It’s under construction. Hopefully, those will be populated with some of these thoughts and I’ll link to your podcasts.
Thank you. I’m sure we’ll be looking out for the website. I want to thank you for spending time with me.
Dr. Sansberry, it is my pleasure.
That’s it for this episode. Thank you for reading. Until next time.
- Dr. Scott Boswell
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About Dr. Scott Boswell
Scott is president of Commerce Trust Company’s West Region. He has oversight of all Commerce Trust lines of business, including private client, private banking, and institutional services. He also serves as the companywide head of the institutional services and corporate trust business lines.
Scott joined Commerce Trust as managing director in Kansas City in January 2007. Having more than 20 years of investment management experience with companies like Bank of America, Aetna Capital and New York Life Asset Management, Scott has strong practical know-how in developing and offering innovative financial solutions.
He holds a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Chicago and, a Bachelor of Arts degree from Westminster College. In addition to his CFA, he is a Certified Employee Benefits Specialist.
He holds or has held leadership roles on a variety of charitable and industry boards, including past president of the Boy Scouts of America-Heart of America Council, president of the board for the Grammy award-winning The Kansas City Chorale, distinguished director and past chairman of the board for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, emeritus director of the St. Luke’s Health System Foundation Board, past director of The American Royal, chair of the board of trustees of University of Missouri – Kansas City, and past trustee of Westminster College.