This article was recently featured in Psychology Today.
Since the day I began studying narcissistic leadership, I have found no shortage of people eager to share their firsthand experiences with narcissists in various positions of authority in the workplace. I have heard stories ranging from the mildly perturbing effects of working with an arrogant colleague to deeply personal stories on the negative effects of working for a self-absorbed boss who lacked the slightest bit of empathy, who could not accept anything remotely resembling criticism, or who engaged in even more damaging behaviors, such as “gaslighting” or emotional blackmail. (Note: Gaslighting refers to a type of manipulation in which someone tries to make you question your memory, reality, or perception of a situation. For example, if someone has ever said to you, “Those words never came out of my mouth,” when in fact you (or a group of people) know that they did, then you have been “gaslighted.”)
Why are such stories so commonplace?
While much has been written about “larger than life” leaders emerging throughout history to inspire and direct social, political, and religious change (think Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), narcissism among business leaders has only more recently (roughly the past 20 years) become a topic of interest. As the business world has emerged as a more active part of our social fabric, and organizational leaders are called to possess dynamic change management capabilities, the demand has increased for big personalities to lead in visionary, charismatic ways (think Steve Jobs, Satya Nadella, Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes, and even Donald Trump).
As the pace of change accelerates, companies will continue to hire and reward leaders who can marshal followers to spin on a dime. But the ability to engage and inspire in such powerful ways strongly corresponds with narcissism and, in certain people, manifests severely negative consequences. It is worth noting that the examples above include leaders who inspired extraordinarily positive change for their followers, as well as those who led their followers to catastrophe. Narcissistic leaders can be difficult, if not impossible, to work for. So, the question is this: To gain sustainable value from these leaders, how can we harness their productive qualities while minimizing the darker side of narcissism that can cause suffering, lower well-being (among other things), and ultimately undermine the success of the business?
Narcissism on a continuum
It is important to draw a distinction—our use of the term “narcissism” in leadership is different from the pathological definition. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as a mental disorder characterized by having at least five of nine criteria, which indicate a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” Certainly, pathological narcissists can be found in the workplace, but by and large, when we refer to narcissism in this context, we see it on a continuum that can produce a range of highly productive (“constructive narcissism”) to severely negative (“reactive narcissism”) results and anything in between.
Most of us in high-achieving professions actually possess some narcissistic traits, with a hefty enough ego to expect big things of ourselves and our teams, take risks, and rally the troops to embrace our vision. Frankly, a “healthy” dose of narcissism can be a highly valuable leadership trait when integrated with visionary thinking, a strong sense of systems, inspiration, and partnerships with other leaders who provide complementary skills. In fact, narcissism can be found in some of the world’s most creative leaders. We usually see this as “charismatic leadership” which can produce incredible results in an organization.
Constructive narcissists are particularly gifted at communicating a compelling vision, energizing followers to give it their “all,” and do their best work. Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, is a good example. For 30 years, the company was profitable under his leadership, in large part because he created a culture that fostered connectedness, inspired employees, and encouraged fun. If you have ever worked for someone that you would follow to any company, anywhere, you have likely experienced this kind of leader.
However, those leaders who tend toward the extreme opposite end of the continuum are capable of causing devastatingly negative outcomes for people and companies if left unchecked. Consider this scenario: After striving for years to establish yourself as an expert in your field, you finally land your dream job at a company widely known for creating a product so innovative that feelings toward it are almost cult-like. Then, the legendary company CEO fires you on the spot for not answering a question with what he considered to be a “satisfactory” response. While this example is extreme—it is also very real (hint: rhymes with “husk”) and is representative of the characteristics often found in reactive narcissists. People on this end of the spectrum tend to portray an arrogant level of confidence; be overly sensitive; and become defensive and demeaning when they feel they are being criticized. While leaders of this type can produce incredible results, at least in the short run, they tend to steamroll people in the process.
My path to studying narcissistic leadership began with a question about the causes of workplace burnout. Along the way, I found a substantial number of burnout victims who had been abused—sworn at, called names, belittled, publicly humiliated, and even threatened—by a leader who at first demonstrated business brilliance, then struggled to sustain followership, and in the long run, failed to produce their promised business outcomes.
What can you do?
So, what can be done if there is a narcissistic leader in your organization who leans toward the dark side? The solutions lie at both an organizational and personal level…
- Check your organization’s culture. Reactive narcissism does not occur in a vacuum. There are cultural and systemic forces at work that either enable negative leadership behaviors or encourage productive behaviors. Take a look at your company. Is the culture one where people feel safe and secure? Or are they walking on eggshells, scared to share their opinions even when they are backed by sound analysis? If someone encounters destructive leadership, are there clear pathways to seek intervention without fear of retaliation—either through your management structure or HR? The process of managing and guiding narcissistic leadership to a productive place is only effective in the context of an environment that rewards desired behavior.
- Engage the leader(s) in coaching. Coaching someone who is defensive, lacks empathy, and is unlikely to admit they have any imperfections may seem like a hopeless cause… but it is possible. An experienced coach can help a reactive narcissist see their behavior for what it is—a failed strategy. From there, a roadmap can be built to a healthier way of being. New, progressive coaching methods focused on guiding such leaders to mindsets that reflect humility and empathy have shown promising results and mitigated the darker side of narcissism.
- Help them find a partner. Pairing a leader like this with someone who has a complementary set of traits can create a highly productive environment. Often this person can act as a buffer between the reactive narcissist and the rest of the company, offer directional guidance to the leader, and provide a healthy filter. Now, if you are the one who is the “filter,” it can take its toll on you. In that case, find healthy outlets for your frustration, or you will eventually tire of the situation and seek a way out. On that note…
- Get clear on your boundaries. When you are in the thrall of a powerful and dynamic leader who has shown signs of destructive tendencies, remember that you do have agency even when there are forces at work aiming to convince you otherwise. Take time to review your values and reflect on what it means for you to operate authentically. Can you continue to accomplish your own important personal and professional goals with integrity while working with this leader? If the answer is no, it might be time to explore new opportunities. And most importantly for you…
- Look for signs of burnout. At some point, you may no longer have the energy to work for this type of leader. If you find yourself having mental and physical symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), lack the energy to participate in things both inside and outside of work, no longer seem to care about your performance, or find yourself exhibiting feelings of extreme anxiety or depression, it is time to leave.
Narcissistic leaders within organizations can drive outstanding results, but can also have devastatingly negative, long-term repercussions for the health of an organization and its employees. The reality is that whether we like it or not, narcissism will continue to play a role in the business world. Many of us have some degree of narcissistic tendencies and are able to produce incredible results. On the other end of the spectrum are narcissistic leaders that can wreak havoc on an organization and the people within them. What we now know, however, is that we are not without options—no matter what your position in an organization, there are actions you can take to help reactive narcissists behave more constructively… and it might be well worth the effort to do so.