Personality does not exist in isolation. The increase of narcissism in individuals is, we believe, just an outcome of a massive shift in culture toward a greater focus on self-admiration. Narcissism has spread through the generations like a particularly pernicious virus–one with multiple means of entry and transmission. First, Americans immunity to narcissism has weakened. At one time, strong social pressures kept people’s egos in check. Mothers asked children, “Who do you think you are?” (instead of “What do you want for dinner, princess?”) Religious leaders stressed humility and modesty. Strong communities and stable relationships discouraged arrogance and made it less necessary to meet and impress new people. Narcissism has also been transmitted as an unintended consequence of good intentions, as in the self-esteem movement and less authoritative parenting. Instead of creating friendly, happy children, however, these practices often produce self-centered, narcissistic young people.
In addition, norms for self-presentation have shifted with cultural trends and new technology…Internet social networking sites and celebrity culture have raised the bar for narcissistic behavior and standards. Using MySpace to post a picture of yourself half-naked and posturing provocatively is now considered totally normal–even though it is also deeply narcissistic. Americans are being persuaded that becoming more vain, materialistic, and self-centered is actually a good thing. This can happen even if you’re not particularly narcissistic but just get drawn in to what everyone else is doing. Today, if you don’t get your teeth whitened, everyone thinks you’re either poor or an espresso-drinking, cigarette-smoking European. Ten years ago, nobody would have noticed.
i really believe that twenge and campbell’s research applies directly to us (church people in general, and church leaders in particular), and in the next few posts i will attempt to make that application. for example, in adopting what i call “the superstar model” of church leadership, i wonder if we are falling into the trap of narcissism.
NOTE: the “superstar model” is where we promote great leaders, gifted teachers, and dynamic worship leaders because people flock to them in droves. the superstar model maintains that it is more expedient, yeah verily, of greater long-term benefit to the kingdom to put present superstars in multiple venues via video (“it attracts bigger crowds”) than to do the tedious work of raising up leaders (who, let’s face facts, will never be as charismatic as our current superstar).
allow me present an opposing (and, in my mind, biblical) perspective.
yesterday morning on espn, i heard a telephone interview with chris petersen. if the name doesn’t ring a bell, petersen is the head football coach of the boise state broncos, who, on the evening before the afore-mentioned interview, completed an undefeated season by beating tcu in the fiesta bowl. petersen touts a career record of 35-4 (23-1 in the wac). to say that he is a great coach would be a ridiculous understatement. in this interview, however, coach petersen refused to take credit for his team’s phenomenal success. he consistently praised his coaching staff and his “good, character” kids. even when interviewer jay crawford (espn’s first take) repeatedly tried to get him to pat himself on the back, petersen refused. crawford asked, “but you keep beating the big boys…don’t you wonder when you will get a seat at the table?” petersen didn’t criticize anyone, or even the system. he just lavished praise on his players. does anyone besides me wonder if chris petersen is a believer? or hope he is?
one final snippet from “the narcissism epidemic”…
It’s temping to believe that narcissism might be beneficial when leading a large company. No so, according to Jim Collins, author of the bestselling business book “Good to Great.” In an exhaustive study, Collins found that companies that moved from being “merely good to truly great” did so because they had what he calls “Level 5” leaders. These CEOs are not the charismatic, ultraconfident figures you would expect. Instead, they are humble, avoid the limelight, never rest on their laurels, and continuously try to prove themselves…
These CEOs were also excellent team-players, something else narcissists are not. In other words, Collins found that the best corporate leaders were not narcissistic or even particularly self-confident. Companies with short-term success, however, were often headed by attention-seeking, arrogant leaders. In these companies, Collins writes, “we noted the presence of a gargantuan ego that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.” This lines up well with the academic research on narcissism and judgment: in the end, narcissists’ overconfidence undermines their performance.
i’m not saying that superstar church leaders are narcissists.
i’m just saying.