Did Leona Helmsley Have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? I have no idea. There can be little doubt that she displayed some traits that were narcissistic.

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

This is the second in a three-part post on narcissism; the topic du jour for our mental model study.

We’ve been talking about narcissism for the past few days and one interesting thread that comes up throughout history is that narcissism, despite being horribly destructive and disruptive, can work, in rare situations, in the favor of someone who suffers from high narcissism or, in extreme cases, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  

Consider Leona Helmsley.  Late billionaire.  Hotel magnate.  Tyrant extraordinaire.  If the person in question has the foresight to select the right type of industry, and arrange their life in a way that gives them insulation from ramifications, they can do great things.  

[mainbodyad]During her lifetime, Leona Helmsley’s tendency towards narcissism helped make her wildly successful, while simultaneously raising the bar on service industry standards across New York City, and thus, the world.  That’s the weird thing about it.  The very behavior I find so contemptible was brilliantly marketed by an advertising firm that convinced her to call herself “Queen of the Palace Hotel” and show her mistreating staff if everything wasn’t perfect so guests knew that she expected them to be treated like royalty.

Cold fries with room service?  You’re fired.

Dirty bathroom for guest?  You’re fired.

Allow someone to wait in line too long?  You’re fired.  

The tyranny translated into phenomenal service.

It Was the Upsetting Things About Leona Helmsley That Made Her Guests Love Her

Her pettiness, meanness, and perfectionist traits turned her into one of the biggest hoteliers in history.  Though you wouldn’t want to work with her, you would want to sleep in want of her properties during travel if you didn’t know how she achieved the things she achieved.  People who are otherwise kind, would actually condone this behavior because, “… have you stayed at her hotels?”.  Results matter in the equation, sometimes more often than they should.

Did Leona Helmsley Have Narcissistic Personality Disorder?  I have no idea.  There can be little doubt that she displayed some traits that were narcissistic.

Leona Helmsley may not have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (I’m not a psychologist – I couldn’t tell you), but she certainly displayed traits that have a high correlation with narcissism in general. They made her hated, and a terrible person. They also made her rich because she chose an industry that was conducive to it (service), and gathered enough resources to protect herself from ramifications.

In Leona Helmsley’s world, people were expendable commodities.  This is the same woman who was sued by an employee, a certain Mr. Bell, because she allegedly, on multiple occasions, slapped him, screamed obscenities, and referred to him as “faggot”.  Of course, that may not have been accurate because that same employee, again, allegedly, lied on his resume, gave away free gifts, and then hosted an out-of-control party at one of Helmsley’s hotels.  

The telling sign of Helmsley’s personality came at the trial, during which said employee sued her for $40 million.  According to The New York Times, Mr. Bell said his first impression of the Park Lane, one of Mrs. Helmsley’s properties, was that it was “dirty”.  

Leona was so incensed at this description, that she would visibly react, seemingly unable to control herself.  When leaving the courtroom:

Mrs. Helmsley seemed unable to resist contradicting Mr. Bell’s first impression of the Park Lane as neglected. ”The Helmsley hotels are beautiful hotels,” she said as she left the courtroom for lunch. As her lawyer tried to stop her, she walked away whispering, ”They are the cleanest, most beautifully decorated hotels.”

And here again, is the paradox: All she cared about was admiration and making sure things were up to her standards.  She didn’t walk out of the courtroom worried about the idea she might be perceived as mean, or talking about the fact that her lawyers said the behavior she exhibited wasn’t true.  She walked out of the courtroom so angry that she had to whisper to herself about how perfect her hotels were. That translates into insanely high standards for guests.  It wasn’t just in her head.  Her hotels were legendary.

[mainbodyad]It’s an interesting problem.

Personally, I would rather have a lower net worth and behave in a way that I would want to be treated were the situation reversed.  I think it’s a false choice, because I don’t believe you have to choose between building a high net worth and being a horrible person.

On a final note, this is why I urge you to adapt John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of seeking wisdom.  Leona Helmsley may have been a terrible human, but there are things about how she ran her empire from which you can learn, put into practice in your own business, and seek to improve upon.  Treating people poorly is not acceptable, but having non-compromising, exacting standards is.  Consider Pixar, the Disney subsidiary.  Pixar is legendary for its supportive corporate culture, yet has the highest quality animation in the industry.