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Tripping Over the C-Suite: Leadership’s Psychedelic Promises and (Pitfalls)

Can leaders balance the fine line between heightened consciousness and the threat of an over-inflated ego?

Imagine, if you will, a boardroom that doubles as a shaman’s hut, where the trappings of corporate power give way to the transcendental allure of psychedelic therapy. 

This is not some imagined scene from a New Age novel or a scene from the hit show Billions but rather from the new playbook for leadership enhancement. Today’s pioneering leaders aren’t content with mere market dominance; they’re on a quest for cognitive supremacy, armed with a consciousness-expanding pharmacopeia.

And, I am a huge proponent of this approach when done intentionally, under the guidance of a professional, and with respect and integrity.

But in the complex nature of the human psyche, not all that glitters is gold.

Decoding Narcissism

Chances are you heard the term “narcissist” thrown around in everyday conversation; often referring to someone who has an inflated sense of self, preoccupied with themselves, or perhaps demanding constant attention and admiration. 

This colloquial use of the term paints a picture of a person who is excessively vain, self-absorbed, and perhaps in love with the spotlight – traits that might characterize numerous modern leaders. In his article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Michael Maccoby quotes an executive who worked for Larry Ellison (a “Productive Narcissist”) at Oracle as saying, “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.” Ellison may have some narcissistic traits, but does that make him a Narcissist?

When we pivot to the clinical realm, narcissism stretches beyond mere self-centred behaviour to a diagnosable personality disorder: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This is a mental health condition characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and presents in various contexts. It’s not just about being egotistical; it’s a deeply ingrained way of interacting with the world that significantly impairs an individual’s relationships and functioning.

For leaders, the distinction between possessing narcissistic traits and having a disorder is crucial.

A touch of narcissism can be a leadership asset, driving one towards success with confidence and a sense of purpose. Narcissism may be the undercurrent of a CEO’s charm, the relentless ambition that powers innovation, or the catalyst for a leader’s unwavering commitment to their vision. After decades of scientific research, psychologists have begun to deconstruct the seductive power of narcissists, explaining the precise mechanisms underlying their charm and ability to get ahead in leadership.

However, when these traits harden into the rigidity of a disorder, the very traits that once propelled leaders forward can morph into liabilities. Excessive self-regard can render them deaf to valuable feedback, cultivate a toxic workplace atmosphere, and lead to isolation. In extreme cases, it can cause a leader to become detached from the needs and insights of their team, resulting in decisions that serve the ego rather than the organization’s mission. The existing literature on narcissistic leadership documenting its destructive effects is vast.

For leaders, finding balance is critical; too little self-confidence and they falter, too much and they risk leading their organizations astray. As a psychologist and leadership coach, I often see clients walking this tightrope – using their strengths of charm and ambition – but for the greater good and not just themselves. 

The Psychedelic Narcissism Dilemma

Psychedelics, once the countercultural sacrament, have undergone a reputational metamorphosis, emerging as the C-suite’s latest elixir for innovation and empathy. And, when used appropriately, can be an incredible tool.

Unfortunately, both Western psychology and Indigenous practices and spirituality are often ignored, creating an extractive relationship between these medicines and the primary reasons for using them. Without the right parameters, frameworks and practices in place, things can go really wrong. The corner office is no stranger to ego trips, but add actual trips into the mix, and you’ve got a potential recipe for self-aggrandizing disaster.

Psychedelic medicines have the power to induce ‘ego dissolution,’ or ‘ego death’, a state where the user’s sense of self-importance melts away.  It’s an encounter where the usual boundaries that separate the “self” from the environment and other beings dissolve, leading to a sense of unity with everything. This state is often described as a seamless oneness with the universe, a transcendence of individual ego, and a merging with a greater consciousness or the cosmos itself.

This experience can be incredibly moving and transformative, often described as a sensation of interconnectedness that is vast and ineffable. Many report a profound sense of peace, as if all personal worries and the constructed narratives of selfhood are temporarily suspended. It’s this perceived barrier-free existence that draws individuals toward psychedelic use, seeking not only the beauty of this boundless state but also the insights it can provide into the nature of self and reality.

This dissolution could be a boon for leadership, promoting greater empathy and a desire to use the leadership position to be of service. By experiencing themselves as a part of a larger whole, leaders can emerge with a renewed sense of purpose, aiming to harness their influence for the collective benefit rather than personal gain.

However, while psychedelics might strip away layers of ego, they can paradoxically lead to a different kind of self-importance.

Leaders might emerge from psychedelic experiences convinced they have accessed a profound truth unavailable to others, a unique ‘revelation’ that can inadvertently reinforce narcissistic tendencies. They may start to believe their insights are superior, fuelling a sense of exceptionalism and distancing them from the collaborative and grounded approach essential for effective leadership. In this way, the very experience that could humble a leader might also sow the seeds of a more insidious form of ego, undermining their leadership with a new brand of self-importance that is disconnected from the realities and perspectives of their business.

In fact, the more narcissistic tendencies leaders may already exhibit, the more likely their psychedelic experiences will amplify these aspects. It is well-documented in the psychedelic discourse that “psychedelics function more or less as nonspecific catalysts and amplifiers of the psyche” – as originally described by Stanislav Grof. Grof’s observation was that psychedelics amplify the contents of one’s consciousness, intensifying the current mindset and perception rather than creating new experiences out of thin air​.

A Grounded Approach to Psychedelic Exploration

In the expanding landscape of psychedelic knowledge, the brighter side emerges: as we grasp the proper use of psychedelics, a parallel understanding of their risks and best practices surfaces.

As you navigate the nuanced terrain of psychedelic exploration within leadership, consider adopting these personalized strategies to ensure a balanced and grounded approach.

  1. Grounding in Community and Practice: Engage with a community or a personal therapist/guide who understands both the potential and the pitfalls of psychedelics. Develop a practice of grounding and integrating experiences in a way that enhances leadership qualities without inflating the ego.
  2. Continual Self-Reflection: Establish a routine of critical self-reflection post-experience. Utilize frameworks, professional coaching, or therapeutic support to help interpret and understand psychedelic insights within the context of your leadership role to avoid amplifying any narcissistic tendencies that may arise.
  3. Cultivating Service-Oriented Leadership: Focus on the intention behind the psychedelic journey. Shift the goal from personal revelation to collective betterment, ensuring that insights gained are applied to serve the team and the organization’s broader mission, rather than just personal advancement.

The impact of psychedelics on leadership development spans both promise and peril, hinging entirely on the individual’s choices. Yet, a firm self-awareness and clear intentions remain fundamental prerequisites for those undertaking a psychedelic journey.