I had a conversation the other day that got me going on a something of a soap box issue for me and it revolves around responsibility. But in that conversation it got more complicated than simply being about responsible versus irresponsible people. The problem really comes about with two interrelated and opposing sets of attributes. Responsibility and narcissism. Because while I was replaying the conversation in my head I realized that for me one of the great problems in our society is people who are simultaneously narcissists and irresponsible. I think this thought goes all the way back to a conversation years ago where a friend noted a psychologist’s opinion that teaching people that they are important in solving the problems of the world trains people to be narcissists because they get caught up in their own importance. I can see that… and yet I’m a HUGE fan of talking about responsibility, belonging, and ownership. Its easy to go into consultant mode where you can tell other people what problems they need to solve, or even how YOU think THEY should solve them. But its largely unhelpful. For me its all in the sense of belonging and ownership that recognizes we are all need to be the people responsible for solving, and not just pointing out, problems.
Thus the intersection of a people who on an x-y axis of responsibility and narcissism.
The x axis for me is a pendulum between ownership/responsibility and laissez-faire voyeurism. The terms may be problematic but the sense is that on one side people feel that life is a shared experiment and we all bear a responsibility to one another and being the solutions to each other’s problems. And the other side has a hands off approach where we stay out of each other’s way. We watch, we don’t meddle.
And the y-axis is about narcissism and altruism. Again the terms may be extreme but the pendulum is about one’s sense of their own importance from the one who is self-obsessed to the one who is so other-oriented as to negate a sense of self.
Why does this matter? Because I am not convinced its helpful to only talk about someone as being a narcissist. I think most good leaders have a level of narcissism in them. Let me, for example use the Apostle Paul. I give him a lot of grief. Paul seems to me to always be saying how humble he is… that he is in fact the most excellently humble guy you could find… the most humblest human of them all. He does humility better than anyone. And I usually laugh about that… because humility is one of those traits you can’t claim to have, and as soon as you do… you don’t. But Paul is on to something in a way VERY FEW leaders in the history of the world have talked about. We need examples. People need to see leaders living life in order to follow them and their example. And that’s tough when you are trying to lead people in a way centered in humility and service. Because the leader needs to think ENOUGH about themselves to see themselves as a laudable example and put themselves out there. AND they need to be oriented towards serving other people and not themselves. They need to be self-important servants? Maybe not that extreme… but maybe also not not-that either. I’m not sure how far I am willing to run with this but I think my working theory is that I’m actually okay with someone creeping up fairly high on the Y-axis toward narcissism…. And I’m actually okay with a pedagogy and social structure that results in people going somewhat high on that Y-axis… if it keeps them on the side where they are responsible owners of the problems in our shared world. I’d rather we all were a little too impressed with ourselves but had a strong sense of inter-relatedness and shared struggle, than a world were aren’t so impressed without ourselves and our authority… but don’t really care to change anything either.
Maybe there is a perfect solution to cultivate a society of belonging altruists… but in the mean time I’d settle for us all thinking a little too much for ourselves… and making the world a better place for each other.
So what do you think? How do we use our language clearly to note that narcissism alone isn’t the problem? Is there a way to impress upon each other responsibility and importance… without being narcissists? And how much of that is ok… if it leads us in the right direction?
And then for fun… where are you hanging out on the scale? Are you happy with where you’d place yourself?