Extremely narcissistic leaders are easy to spot – and unfortunately they are all around us. They are in the Hollywood press, on self-promoting book covers, in financial and marital scandals and in our own companies. They manifest in positive and negative forms; leading people to great heights and depths of despair.
At their best, narcissistic leaders attract and inspire followers to implement their grand visions. Charismatic speeches abound as they capture the hearts and minds of followers with their inspiring messages and passionate convictions. They are big picture thinkers and creative strategists, yet fiercely competitive without conscience as to whom they must bypass in order to win. They are risk takers who can lead a merger or acquisition without being burdened by the emotions of people around them. They are very productive and aggressively pursue goals, not limited by energy. They don’t hesitate to self-promote their contributions and are often recognized for their achievements. They are driven by their constant, limitless cravings and the need for immediate gratification. And, they distrust competition in others and view it as a plan to destroy them.
To the quintessential narcissist, life is about obsessive grandiosity – thoughts and behaviors that constantly display unlimited self-importance, entitlement, control, dominance, success, power, intelligence, wealth, excess, acquisition and reward.
At an extreme level, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined as “a long-term pattern of abnormal thinking, feeling and behavior in many different situations that has a negative impact on social relationships” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR, 2006).
Worn as a badge of honor, those with NPD flaunt their social importance effortlessly. They are superficially tolerant of others and proceed in life unstopped by negative feedback; after all, it’s the other person’s fault (or issue), not theirs. They wear arrogance as their figurative leadership suit, just like their expensive attire. Manipulation to achieve their results is as comfortable as saying “Hello.” To them, it’s not only an acceptable way to lead, but the only way they know how.
Narcissists regard everyone and everything as a threat. Criticism easily rolls off them and deflects outward. They don’t allow anything to wound their image and ego. Blaming and paranoia occupy their thinking. The impact of narcissism leaves them in a state of guiltlessness, fantasy, and disconnect with everyone around them. They hide under a façade of consideration, never experiencing empathy or closeness to others – only envy.
They are completely surprised when confronted with someone’s lack of compliance with their expectations. With insubordination, they are left speechless (and that’s just about the only time). “This never happens to me. How dare someone challenge me! I always get my way. They are wrong.” These and other thoughts ramble through their minds as they stare in utter disbelief to your boldness. “You obviously don’t know to whom you are speaking!”
The Impact to the Organization
Ultimately, the narcissist is self-centered and divides, resulting in the destruction of trust and productivity. Dealing with a narcissistic leader can be a defining moment for a team. Often afraid to speak the truth, people may actually shield the leader from bad news and the true reality of the business concerns that impact the company. Eventually, the company may fail. Many wonder if results could have been more favorable with a different leader. A narcissist’s impact often creates confusion, distrust and even resentment.
Over time, they wear on people and create large divides in organizations. Teamwork never exists under their reign. They surround themselves with “yes” people to carry out their orders and hire “mini me’s” who acquiesce to their desires. Narcissists may verbally support policies but secretly believe they don’t apply to them. This can be dangerous for an organization if there aren’t enough checks and balances to monitor corporate practices.
Feeding the Fire
Supply for narcissists comes in the form of agreement, adoration, approval, praise, devotion, and, most often, subservience – all which nourish and feed the enlarged ego they maintain. Their supply is never satisfied. Because the need is so grandiose, they continue to plow through people who don’t enrich their lives and manipulate those who are caught off guard by the aura of confusion that surrounds an encounter with them.
On the surface, they can be entertaining and even complimentary – yet beneath this mask resides their cold, cunning charm and inflexible nature. Follow them long enough and you will witness one failed relationship after another. As soon as someone doesn’t fill their supply, they swiftly, without remorse or responsibility, reject the person as if they had committed an unethical act. It’s that easy for them.
The only bad emotional stretches endured by a narcissist are during periods of limited supply. The narcissist feels empty, humiliated, deprived, neglected, treated unjustly and more. Eventually, they will do whatever is necessary to seek attention and will conspire, analyze, plot and plan to fill their depleted reserve. These attention-seeking behaviors are usually very visible and an indication that they are in a troubled state.
Most won’t admit they are narcissistic, in fact, will deny it. They are confident in their skin and demand admiration. After all, they are successful in life. They made it to the top or are on rapid ascent. Some may tell you they are narcissistic but be wary. They are wearing the term with pride and accomplishment, not awareness.
Often, narcissists are workaholics. They are constantly on the move and may be involved in a variety of activities in their life (traveling to exotic places, taking extreme risks like climbing mountains, holding prominent board positions and high-profile community committee chairs, entering competitions with the intent to win, as just a few examples.) So what is this persistent activity all about? Maybe the addictive high of excessive busyness is an attempt to distract their outer selves from their inner selves and any unpleasant feelings or realizations that might surface if they slow down and reflect on their behavior.
To be calm would create a time to be alone with reality and possibly see a different “me” – a potentially painful revelation. Most likely, this inner reflection isn’t going to happen. It’s just too painful for the narcissist.
Am I Narcissistic?
The truth is we all have some narcissist behavior. If we are honest with ourselves, we can find times in our lives when we have been prone to selfishness and fantasies of grandeur about something. The American Dream fosters the notion that we all need more in our lives. It seems natural to want something that someone else has – we call it “keeping up with the Jones’.”
Sure, we show these tendencies in various moments. However, in a healthy state, we maintain an awareness of the impact of our behavior on others and monitor our behavior accordingly.
Leaders We Follow with Ease
For the most admired leaders, these narcissistic tendencies are kept in check with humility, self-awareness, strong emotional intelligence (including empathy), accountability (possibly with a strong coach), responsibility, a spirit of selfless giving, helping others to succeed, a desire to learn and grow from mistakes and the ability to change ineffective behaviors. Healthy leaders are willing to say, “I made the mistake and I will take the hit for our group,” “I want to recognize you for the contribution you made to this team,” “Your idea was better than anything I could have thought of, thank you.” “No, your needs are more important than mine, right now.” “You are on the path of becoming an even stronger leader than me.” For a leader to thrive long term and inspire others to follow, the focus needs to be outward, not solely inward.
Surviving the Narcissist
We need to remember that we are the mirror for the narcissist. When we give them “supply,” it validates them. In essence, we reflect the image back to them that they grip tightly – and we reinforce it. They interpret this as an affirmation. The longer a narcissist’s supply is fed, without challenge or interruption, the worse they become over their life time. Even the success they achieve feeds their narcissism. Remember that grandiosity is their mantra…more is better, and supply is their constant quest.
So how do we exist with a narcissistic leader without losing our soul to them?
• Check for tendencies. Ask yourself these questions “What narcissistic tendencies do I observe? Is this person in an isolated moment of grandeur? Does this behavior pattern repeat itself over time? Do I experience feelings of inferiority and question my intelligence and self-worth in their presence?” Remember, the narcissistic has charisma, so you might not recognize their luring behavior right away. Consistency may be a sign that this isn’t situational but a behavioral pattern.
• Triggers. Why do you allow this person to affect you? Do you have feelings of inferiority or jealously as a result of a past event that triggers negative emotions when you engage with this person? No one else can dictate who you are and how you feel about yourself – deal with your own emotions more effectively and realistically. Focus on improving your self-worth and confidence, not the narcissists.
• Put on your oxygen mask first. Work on what you need to do to add value to your organization and grow as a leader and ignore trying to please the narcissist. The focus on a narcissist is on themselves, right? Learn a valuable lesson – be a bit more selfish, too. The airline safety drill says, put your mask on first, before you help another person. If you don’t survive, you won’t be of any help to anyone else in the organization. Work on strengthening your leadership style.
• You can’t move the mountain. Sometimes we believe we have the power to change another human. It’s a false belief. If you try, you’ll be carrying the burden of their aggressive behavior while the narcissist continues through life unaffected by you. They don’t want to change, especially if they believe they are successful.
• Don’t fence them in. Narcissists are extremely independent and won’t allow others to get in the way of their success. It’s often why they are challenged in roles where they aren’t the “boss.” Allow their knack for risk taking and passion to explore new products, processes and complex problems but monitor their progress against strategy and goals and the budget!
• Don’t avoid. Don’t ignore or be indifferent. If you do, it can cause a narcissistic pain. Sounds good at first but if you do this, they will use it against you by devaluing you as a person, believing you are weak. So learn to deal with them.
• Select the moments to confront. Remember, when challenged they will turn aggressive. Find a creative way for them to believe the solution was their idea. Use a bit of the manipulation technique that they radiate with proficiency. Guide the process, provide comprehensive information and help lead them to your perspective. End result, you might get what you want. But, you must relinquish being the victor. After all, they want to look good, right? So, focus on the desired end result, not who got to the finish line first.
• Circles are best. Don’t push a narcissist into a corner. There are no boundaries or borders that a narcissist will hesitate to cross to preserve their image. They will aggressively respond with hostility, strength, anger and no guilt – whatever it takes to put you back in line and change your perception. They will demoralize you before they will accept blame. The key is not to get trapped into your own need to prove them wrong.
• You aren’t supposed to win. Accept the fact that you can’t win or control a narcissist and life will get easier. Remember: you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t fix it – so don’t own it! Make your encounters neutral with a narcissist. It’s their behavior that’s offensive. Once you embrace this concept you’re half way to having a superficial relationship (that’s right, it won’t have deep meaning for you, because the whole relationship is about them).
• Be your values. Don’t allow the narcissist to lure you into compromising your values – always stay true to yourself. Be ethical, moral and legal.
• Set boundaries. Don’t allow a narcissist to control you. Narcissists usually don’t have life balance, even if they do, they will cross yours to get results. So don’t allow them to rule your time and energy.
• Create realistic expectations. Narcissists don’t think like you, so don’t expect them to react the way you do. Posture your conversation to get the results you want while supplying the narcissist with what they need.
• Be empathetic. Show sensitivity in managing the relationship. They appear tough but are very thin-skinned. Narcissistic behavior is driven from insecurity (potentially stuck in the “terrible twos” stage) and that’s why they build a wall around their life. If you can get to a point of feeling empathetic and show compassion for the narcissist versus feeling like the victim, you can actually enjoy being in their presence and seeing their positive attributes – they all have them! You might even find it amusing to interact with them once you’ve figured them out. Listen and allow them to be themselves.
• Your time, your decision. Limit the frequency of your interactions. Don’t set yourself up for more contact than what you need to accomplish your objective. Select when you need to interact and carefully plan how you will interact. Once done, move on.
• Let them prove something. Give them a challenge and they will get it done. They want to be superior, so allow them to accomplish difficult tasks. “You’re good at solving complex problems. I have one I need some input on. Could you help me?” Complex problems prove a narcissist’s value with yet another successful accomplishment.
• Role models, no. Don’t ask them to coach others. You’ll just get more of the same behavior. They view themselves as instructors, not mentors, and will resort to telling others exactly what to do and how to do it.
• Create safety. Help them feel safe. Do not shame them or instill fear – they cannot tolerate it. They will find creative ways to disown those feelings by dumping them back on you if they feel you’ve threatened their carefully created image.
• Compliment. Provide a heart-felt compliment when warranted. They do have talents and enjoy being recognized for their strengths and accomplishments. They’ll glow as you talk about them and think highly of you for noticing what’s apparent to them. They will try to keep close to you because you are a source of supply. If they are in a position to help your career, seek out their assistance but know you will owe them the credit. Just don’t compliment if you don’t mean it – that will only cause you resentment and stress, not them. And, they’re smart enough to know when you’re not sincere.
• Be wary of the “boomerang.” Compliments from narcissists aren’t about you. Take the compliment but realize they are complimenting how well you did by what they did for you – they are taking the credit. Be confident in your accomplishments and don’t let the narcissist undervalue you by deflecting back to their influence.
• Go ahead and impress. Convince them you can do something that is of importance to them and can do it better than they can, and they will be intrigued. If a narcissist believes you are equally as powerful, they may curiously follow your every move. They may want what you possess or you may be the next high-profile person that they discovered!
See how it works? To interact with a narcissist have a plan and strong stance. In the end, it does take more time and energy to deal with a narcissist. But, it can be done without a tremendous toll on you! You decide how much time you’ll devote to an interaction with this type of leader and how to be most effective in their presence. Plan a strategy. Choose to make it the best it can be but be realistic about your expectations. Focus on what you need from the interaction and it will help keep perspective and your sanity!
Can Narcissistic Leaders Ever Change?
In the ancient myth of Narcissus, it suggests that “we are on our way toward healing narcissism when we feel an overwhelming desire to be the person we newly imagine ourselves to be.” Removing self-absorption comes at a cost. The realization can feel like the death of “me.” Letting go of grandiose expectations and the fantasy life one has lived is very hard but in order for a new way of being to exist, that image must die. Imagine your identity is removed and you are left with nothing but the opportunity to create a new “you.” Tremendous courage, love and support to navigate this transformation would be required.
The story of Narcissus ends with a colorful detail. His companions look for his body but cannot find it. In its place they find a flower with a yellow center and white petals. Here we see the hard, rigid marble narcissism transformed into the soft, flexible textures of a daffodil, the narcissus. The story begins with rigid self-containment and ends with the flowering of a personality. Care of the soul requires us to see the myth in the symptom, to know that there is a flower waiting to break through the hard surface of narcissism. Knowing the mythology, we are able to embrace the symptom, glimpsing something of the mysterious rule by which a disease of the psyche can be its own cure.
– Excerpt from “Care of the Soul” by Thomas Moore
The self-acceptance a narcissist craves is something they need to discover, deep inside, but it may be too painful to go there. As in most behavior, what we insist on is exactly what we lack. A narcissistic leader wonders “Am I okay?” What they truly expose is “No matter what I do, I don’t feel I’m okay.”
Success, power and brilliance as a leader can exist, but it must co-exist with a successful, powerful and meaningful connection with people. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is a phrase we hear all the time. Clearly, what a leader says and how they act is their leadership style.
Collaborative leadership cultivates greatness, fuses everyone to the future vision and reveals the pathways to success. Collaborative leaders empower people to achieve top performance; embodied in their individual contributions to unassailable bottom-line results.
The style of leadership that you adopt is clearly your choice. Select wisely. Undeniably, your choice will reap very distinctive outcomes.
The author, Suzanne Paetzer, is the Director-Western US Region at Droste Group.