Icarus Complex: Narcissistic C-Suiters and the Damage They Cause
Residents of C-suites and boardrooms who exhibit the “Icarus complex” often initially soar but ultimately plummet from lofty heights and take their companies with them. Here’s how organizations can identify them and prevent disaster.
In Greek mythology, Daedalus and his son, Icarus, escaped imprisonment on the island of Crete by fashioning wings made of feathers glued together with wax. Daedalus taught Icarus how to fly with the wax wings, but he cautioned his son not to soar too high or the sun would melt them. But Icarus ignored his father’s wise counsel and began flying higher until the wax began melting under the heat of the sun. His wings quickly fell apart, and he plunged into the sea and drowned.
Another literary tragic figure is Captain Ahab in Melville’s “Moby Dick,” who’s consumed with one mission: the white whale. Ahab is a most dangerous kind of leader. His narcissistic carelessness and destructive determination defeat him as he takes the whaling ship Pequod and her crew (except for Ishmael) down with him — the maritime equivalent of flying too close to the sun.
More than ever before, organizational leadership demands not just accomplished functional skills, experience, and knowledge, but also personality and psychological stability. Emotional and influential illiteracy still plague many C-suites and boardrooms as do examples of recklessness, defiance of limitations, and personal over-ambition. The figure below illustrates a simple model of destructive leadership behavior and its relationship with subordinates and an organization.
(From “The prevalence of destructive leadership behavior,” by Merethe Schanke Assland, et. al., British Journal of Management)
Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray coined the term “Icarus complex” to characterize a specific type of hyper-ambitious personality that includes elements of narcissism, ascensionism (love of flying and heights), and extreme imaginary cognitive states. The person with an Icarus complex initially soars but ultimately plummets precipitously from lofty heights.
The Icarus complex shares many traits of personality disorders found in “dark psychology.” Individuals who consciously take advantage of others exhibit characteristics known as the “Dark Triad of Personality.” These traits include the tendency to seek admiration and special treatment (narcissism), to be callous and insensitive (psychopathy) and to manipulate others for one’s personal gain (Machiavellianism).
While a modicum of narcissism can be healthy for some charismatic leaders, excesses of dark psychology have given rise to “dark leadership.” Such disorders exhibited by corporate leaders can be dangerous to an organization’s financial and emotional health. One 2010 study of the Norwegian workforce found that destructive leadership behavior varied from 33.5% to 61%, which indicates that “destructive leadership is not an anomaly,” according to Merethe Schanke Assland’s British Journal of Management article.
Flying too high in the C-suite
C-suite executives harboring Icarus complexes are a hazardous game changer for everyone in an organization, especially when risky decisions or fraudulent actions jeopardize employees’ livelihoods and those with financial stakes. “Our most important corporate regulation,” writes University of Pennsylvania law professor and author, David Skeel, “has always been enacted in the wake of stunning Icarus Effect collapses.”
See also “Flying the Corporate Jet Too Close to the Sun” and "Icarus Complex: A Case Study of Marvell Technology."