Checks and Balances: Martha Stewart

Image            In the highly competitive market place, organizations seek to remain at the cutting edge of their competition. Failure to do so, can lead them on a downward trend that affects more than their bottom-line (Landrum, Howell, & Paris, 2000). Researchers tend to be short-sided when addressing organizational structure and effectiveness, because they focus their attention on traditional hierarchical organizations and not on non-traditional structures (Wellman, 2007). In the top down (hierarchical) organization, the focus is to seek for a leader that can be the hero, one who will ascend to the status of celebrity savior of the organization (Bennis, 1999). Additionally, Macobby (2004) emphasized a number of factors that contributed to top leaders being profiled as celebrities of organizations. For example, the growth of the business necessitates having celebrity leadership, or constant global changes pave the way for organizations to look for a leader that is both charismatic and visionary. Finally, there is a strategic change in the personality type of top leaders within organizations, which results in the creation of a larger than life leader. Therefore, organizations are willing to acquiesce this type of leader with little regard to the narcissistic behavior they exhibit.

Martha Stewart’s Celebrity Status

            An example of a celebrity leader that exhibits narcissistic behavior is Martha Stewart. Her assent to stardom came as a result of her ability to convince homemakers that they could do almost anything around the home and rise to the same status afforded to her. She held to the belief that she could change the world (Macobby, 2007). As a result, Stewart founded Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) to be a successful multi million-dollar company even after she was imprisoned for insider trading (Bruhn, 2005). Her name is the brand for almost everything in homemaking, and she is known for simplicity, sophistication and perfection in style (Lum and Lum, 2005). In the eyes of her followers, she and her brands are viewed as trustworthy. This provided Stewart a baseline to motivate subordinates and stakeholder to buy into her dream of changing the world. With the help of devoted followers, she built a homemaking empire that elevated her to one of the most powerful women in the business world (Howard, 2013).

Types of Narcissism and Vision

            Macobby (2004) argued that there are two types of narcissistic behavior, productive and unproductive. Based on Macobby (2004) research, Stewart is a productive narcissist, because she is a risk taker and has the ability to charm her followers by her rhetoric.  In the eyes of her followers, Stewart is viewed as the role model homemaker (Bruhn, 2005). For Stewart, her productive narcissism provided her the power to continue to maintain her position within MSO. After her conviction, she expressed her gratitude to her followers and her trust in the legal system, however, she went on to declare her innocence and being mistreated (Bruhn, 2005). Productive narcissistic leaders have difficulty with those who stand in their way or try to inhibit their movement forward (Macobby, 2004).

            Productive narcissistic leaders are about creating a future that others will follow (Macobby, 2004). Narcissistic leaders insist that they alone are the savior, who can protect followers from enemies, and offer the certainty, order, and immortality for which they so fervently yearn (Lipman-Blumen, 2005). Stewart’s idea of simplicity, appeals to the average homemaker. As a result, a narcissistic leader, such as Stewart, can offer a type of euphoria or a heaven on earth environment for her followers, but it is unrealistic Macobby, 2004). The end results are devastating for subordinates who work in these unhealthy organizational environments, because this type of leader indoctrinates their followers, leaving them no choice but to buy into their grand dream and vision (Macobby, 2004, 2007).

             Having vision is paramount in leadership, but when leaders describe their vision as Stewart did, in such a grandiose manner as changing the world, this borders on narcissism (Lipman-Blumen, 2005). For the narcissist, vision is not enough. One of the fatal flaws of many in leadership is to place so much emphasis on their vision. Conversely, when a productive narcissist with a charismatic flare, who is skilled and gifted, communicates their vision, they connect and hold followers (Macobby, 2004). The strength of the vision takes shape, and the productive narcissist moves forward. If that leader just happens to be the founder of the organization, such as Stewart, they will set a course because of their urge to accomplish big things (Macobby, 2007).

Charisma and Narcissism and the Effects on Followers

            A common connection with narcissistic behavior is charisma (Bruhn, 2005). The word charisma is translated from a Greek word meaning, “a divinely inspired gift” (Yukl, 2010). It is often used to describe one who has a special ability to influence others or to be divinely enabled to act or speak. When leaders have a vision that raises the followers above the status quo, they tend to follow such leaders (Yukl, 2010). On the other hand, narcissistic leaders that exhibit charismatic behavior can be dangerous. Their exhibition of strong confidence creates an awe among followers that is contagious and provides a vehicle for wrongdoing (Yukl, 2010). Leaders that fall into the behavioral categories of charismatic and narcissistic surround themselves with submissive and loyal followers who will not criticize them (Yukl, 2010). They have inflated ideas of self, thinking that they alone have all the answers. In this way, they boost their followers’ confidence and push them to accomplish what some see as impossible. Despite some of the positive aspects of narcissistic leadership, they create an environment that is devoid of empathy for others (Yukl, 2010). In the end, the negative aspects of their leadership outweigh the positive outcomes. There are dangers associated with being seduced by a narcissistic personality that exhibits charisma. This type of leader is extremely aggressive and energetic (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007). This can be viewed as strength and a weakness, because the aggressive behavior can be used to take advantage of followers (Macobby, 2007). For instance, Stewart was known for her ill treatment of her staff when they made the smallest of errors, especially if they lacked attention to the smallest details (Macobby, 2007). Other common behaviors that narcissistic leaders exhibit are open anger, disgust, cruel outbursts, calloused attitudes, and an inability to see when they do wrong (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007; Kellerman, 2004; Macobby, 2004, 2007). When Stewart was convicted of insider trading, she described her strong faith in the justice system. On the other hand, she decried this system as unfair, because she believed she did nothing wrong (Bruhn, 2005). As a result, Stewart’s industriousness, open aggression, and inability to see her own errors, opened the door to the revelation of her narcissistic behavior.

Productive Narcissism and the Organization

            Stewart’s ability to pour herself into her organization is a prime of example of what Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007) contended in their research. They found that when top executives join an organization, they infuse themselves into the organization, because of their experience, predilection, and temperament. The injection of a leader’s personality, style, and behavior can be an asset to the organization, however, when they are not held accountable, these leaders can inflect a great deal of damage on the organization (Chaterjee & Hambrick, 2007; Gerstner, König, Enders, & Hambrick, 2013). Additionally, they contended that narcissism is a key personality found in many top leaders.

            Gerstner et al. (2013) researched the influence narcissism had on top leaders and discovered that leaders who display narcissistic behavior feel they are superior to others, have a willingness to lead others openly, bore easily, lack empathy, and desire strong praise from others.  These behaviors are not all intrinsically bad, but they can cause difficulty within an organization. On the other hand, a productive narcissist exhibits a confidence and willingness to take risks that is much higher than other leaders (Gerstner et al. 2013). Organizations clamor for this type of leadership, especially when they are going through difficult moments. For example, following Steward’s incarceration, she did not relinquish her position as a member of the board of directors nor did she step down from her position as the chief creative officer. The organization and its followers did not see anything wrong with having a convicted felon at the helm, because they believed she did nothing wrong (Bruhn, 2005). Additionally, because of the public interest that this generated, this move fed into Stewart’s narcissistic appetite for attention, which for her was a type of payoff. This is a typical behavioral trait of highly narcissistic leaders (Gerstner et al. 2013).

Organizational Effectiveness Checks and Balances

            Yukl (2010) postulated that the actions of organizational leaders are what encourage ethical behavior. Furthermore, avoiding unethical behavior becomes the responsibility of the entire organization, not just the leader. Organizational leaders are given latitude that enables them to do what is necessary to meet the expectations necessary to compete in whatever market they serve. For some, the only worthy pursuit is the bottom line, and without proper checks and balances, problems are soon to follow (Bruhn, 2005). An organization that trades the ethical behavior of leadership for the bottom line develops a culture of deception that spreads throughout the organization and affects followers, stakeholders, and entire communities (Bruhn, 2005). MOS was accustomed to the leadership style of Stewart, because she conceived it, inspired it, and built it (Macobby, 2007). According to Yukl (2010), leaders have a tremendous effect on followers both positively and negatively. Ricketts (2009) argued that there is a difference between leadership success and leadership effectiveness by connecting leader success with the external behavior of the leader and effectiveness with the internal state and attitude. Many would consider Stewart an effective leader because of her external success. On the other hand, her narcissistic behavior created an environment that promoted devaluing her followers.

            Lewis (1985) laid the groundwork in understanding the importance of having an authoritative definition of checks and balances that all leaders can use when describing business ethics. He synthesized a definition that included rules, standards, codes, and principles to govern individual behavior. Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser (2007) suggested that when an organization provides a stable system of good checks and balances, and strong followers exist, they will effectively provide an environment where bad leadership will be inhibited from hijacking the organization. Additionally, Kellerman (2004) argued that the negative behavior of the leader will be viewed as ineffective, incompetent, unethical, or evil. Stewart’s productive narcissism could not be considered evil, ineffective, or incompetent. She built a successful organization that continues to thrive, however, her conduct was unethical. Because there were strong checks and balances with regard to insider trading, she served time in prison. Conversely, the organization failed to mitigate Steward’s unethical behavior by providing her the opportunity to continue to be part of the upper leadership of the company she built (Bruhn, 2005).

            This type of organizational behavior results in promoting the dysfunctional behavior within the leadership (Kellerman, 2004). A lack of checks and balances within the organization provided Stewart the open door to continue and maintain her narcissistic behavior and remain a calloused towards her organizational members (Kellerman, 2004). In organizations such as MSO, developing and maintaining strong checks and balances is not simply holding the leadership accountable. To be an effective organization, stakeholders and followers need to be part of seeking ways to make the entire organization accountable. Had this been the case for Stewart, her ability to act unethically and continue to allow her narcissistic behavior could be thwarted (Kellerman, 2004).


            Narcissism is a behavior that is found in many top organizational leaders, especially in organizations that have a hierarchical structure. Organizations are clamoring for the kind of leader that can help them compete in the highly competitive market place. As a result, some of these top leaders have reached celebrity status, as in the case of Martha Stewart. As a productive narcissist (Macobby, 2007), Stewart became a household name. Her grand vision to change the world propelled her to be one of the top women leaders to date. Her narcissistic behavior had a positive and negative affect on her organization, stakeholders, and followers. Charisma and narcissism tend to find each other, as was the case with Stewart. Her ability to create a large following of homemakers that continued to support her, even after she was incarcerated, fed her narcissistic behavior. Her attitude towards those who tried to stop her bad behavior and her treatment of her subordinates all reveal just how damaging narcissism can be, especially when the organizations feed this behavior by not implementing proper checks and balances. In the end, organizations run the risk watching their leaders self-destruct or watching their organization head towards disaster (Macobby, 2005).



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