Michael Maccoby, authority on leadership and the workplace, dies at 89


Michael Maccoby, a psychologist and consultant who became a global authority on leadership and the workplace, writing best-selling books about corporate dynamics and personality types in business — including “the productive narcissist,” a term that he used to describe disruptive executives including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch — died Nov. 5 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.

He had a heart attack, said his daughter Annie Maccoby-Berglof.

A Harvard-educated scholar with a PhD in social relations, Dr. Maccoby launched his academic career in Mexico in the 1960s, studying life in a rural village with German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. He went on to explore the psyche of America’s workplaces and executive suites, writing more than a dozen books that examined the nature of work, the motivations of workers and their bosses, and his own attempts to make corporate life not just tolerable but personally fulfilling.

His work drew on social psychology, cultural anthropology and Freudian psychoanalysis, and bridged the worlds of business and academia. Dr. Maccoby ran a Washington consulting firm; served as the longtime director of a technology, public policy and human development program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and was a consultant to scores of companies, schools, government agencies and labor groups, including AT&T, Volvo, the Communications Workers of America and the Departments of State and Commerce.

“My father’s life was really about how to create a more humane workplace,” said Maccoby-Berglof, a contributor to the Financial Times. “And that didn’t necessarily mean working at home or getting a better vacation. It meant getting a chance to develop your talents at work as a human being.”

Dr. Maccoby (pronounced MACK-uh-bee) was perhaps best known for coining the term “productive narcissist” in a 2000 article for the Harvard Business Review, which argued that a new breed of visionary executives had replaced the sedate, prim-and-proper managers who dominated corporate life during the mid-20th century.

These new leaders had a creative approach to business and an ability to persuade people to follow them, he said. They were also overly sensitive to criticism and struggled to empathize and listen — negative traits that were encapsulated by an encounter Dr. Maccoby had with a CEO who brusquely rejected his counsel by saying, “I didn’t get here by listening to people.”

“Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric,” Dr. Maccoby wrote. “The danger is that narcissism can turn unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, narcissists become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbor the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success. … Even brilliant narcissists can come under suspicion for self-involvement, unpredictability, and — in extreme cases — paranoia.”

Some business scholars criticized the article, saying that Dr. Maccoby had done little more than coin an exciting new term. But the piece won the McKinsey Award for best Harvard Business Review article of the year, and he adapted it into a popular book, “The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership” (2003).

The term was also championed by many in the business world. According to his daughter, a half-dozen prominent CEOs called Dr. Maccoby to complain that he had not cited them as “productive narcissists.” Dr. Maccoby himself said that he had coached 33 “successful narcissistic leaders” during his career, telling the Boston Globe in 2017, “They’re all liars.”

And yet, he added, “as one CEO said to me, ‘Yes, I lie about our products and results, but I work very hard to make my lies come true.’ ”

Dr. Maccoby was first widely known for coining another corporate label, “the gamesman.” The term served as the title for his second book, a 1977 bestseller that sorted business leaders into four basic types: jungle fighters (hard-driving executives motivated by power and money), craftsmen (driven by their own high standards of quality), company men (loyal, unselfish but not exactly creative) and the titular gamesmen, emotionally detached risk-takers who embrace change and are fueled by a desire for fame and winning.

Critics said “The Gamesman” was engrossing, if perhaps too sweeping in its generalizations. Dr. Maccoby based his findings on interviews with 250 managers and executives at a dozen companies, and extended his framework to other arenas outside business. Among presidents, he said, John F. Kennedy was a gamesman, Gerald Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower were company men, and Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were jungle fighters.

Charles Heckscher, a Rutgers University labor expert who worked with Dr. Maccoby as a graduate student, said that unlike many other scholars, Dr. Maccoby brought to his work “a very deep psychoanalytic understanding of people’s motivations,” helping to show how organizations develop and respond to social change.

“He was a brilliant consultant in large part because of his psychoanalytic understanding,” Heckscher added in a phone interview. “He tells a story where a CEO said to him, ‘Okay, you want to be a consultant? Tell me something I don’t know.’ Michael said, ‘Well, I can’t just make it up. Let’s do a Rorschach test.’ He did it and interpreted it, and the guy took him on [as a consultant].

“I never saw him do a Rorschach test, but I did see him understand how people were responding at a level they were not aware of, and to build trust as a result.”

The older of two children, Michael Maccoby was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on March 4, 1933. His mother was a homemaker from Oregon who later worked as a schoolteacher, and his father was a Reform rabbi from London, the last in a line of seven consecutive generations of Maccoby rabbis. One of his aunts, Eleanor Emmons Maccoby, was a distinguished psychologist and helped inspire him to go into the field.

At Harvard College, Dr. Maccoby was president of the student newspaper, the Crimson, and roommates with Anthony Beilenson, who later served 10 terms in Congress as a California Democrat. Dr. Maccoby was also a classmate of author John Updike, who led the rival Lampoon humor magazine.

Along with several other Crimson journalists, Dr. Maccoby stole the Lampoon’s mascot, a bronze figure of an ibis, and presented it to Soviet diplomats in New York as a “peace dove,” in an elaborate school prank that made national news. A deputy ambassador from Moscow “asked me about Harvard and whether they taught Marx and Engels,” Dr. Maccoby later told the Crimson. (He also said that he was briefly “kidnapped” by Updike and other Lampoon writers in retaliation for the theft.)

Dr. Maccoby received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and studied at the University of Oxford and the University of Chicago before returning to Harvard, where he earned his doctorate in 1960.

By then he had married Sandylee Weille, a portrait painter and champion figure skater. Together they drove south to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where they started a family while Dr. Maccoby studied psychoanalysis and collaborated with Fromm, conducting research for their book “Social Character in a Mexican Village,” published in 1970. That same year, Dr. Maccoby and his family settled in Washington, where he got a fellowship at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

Deciding that there was more to learn from high-tech companies than rural villages, Dr. Maccoby visited corporations including Hewlett-Packard and IBM. For one of his first workplace experiments, he helped overhaul an auto-parts factory in Bolivar, Tenn., in an effort to “humanize” the workplace while improving communication and productivity. Workers were separated into teams and given new freedoms on the job, including the opportunity to go home early when they reached their daily quotas.

Dr. Maccoby came to believe that he and other organizers “were too idealistic” in the project. Yet his work at the Harman Automotive plant attracted national attention, and he was soon consulting with companies including AT&T, working to build trust between management and workers. He was also consulting overseas, including in Sweden, where in 2007 he was named a commander of the Order of the Polar Star by King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Dr. Maccoby’s wife died in 2019. In addition to his daughter Maccoby-Berglof, of London and Stockholm, survivors include three other children, Nora Maccoby-Hathaway of Mérida, Mexico, and Izette Maccoby Folger and Max Maccoby, both of Washington; and seven grandchildren.

While Dr. Maccoby continued to write about leadership in books such as “Strategic Intelligence” (2015), he continued to field questions about narcissistic bosses, especially after Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. Trump had cited Dr. Maccoby’s work in his 2004 book “Think Like a Billionaire,” writing that Dr. Maccoby made “a convincing argument that narcissism can be a useful quality if you’re trying to start a business. A narcissist does not hear the naysayers.”

“At the Trump Organization,” he continued, “I listen to people, but my vision is my vision.”

It was true, Dr. Maccoby said, that narcissists could make extraordinary leaders. But he worried that Trump embodied the worst aspects of the character type, especially the tendency to “make organizations into tribes.”

“If you look at Trump, he really is not leading the party. He is creating a tribe of people who share a sense of both resentment and being better than other people,” Dr. Maccoby told The Washington Post in 2016. “History shows this kind of personality, when they are given power and they are puffed up, can become totally abusive and dangerous.”

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