In a recent workshop with emerging leaders, a guest speaker highlighted the dangers of narcissistic leaders. He recounted various stories of narcissists encountered through his own career, including that of the board chair who repeatedly manipulated the agenda by becoming furious when his views were questioned even slightly, demanded an unrealistic amount of adulation, and hobbled dissenting views by reminding individual members of the special favours he had done for them.

An engaged discussion ensued – pretty much everyone can identify with the powerlessness that comes from operating in the wake of a narcissist’s hubris, grandiosity and superiority.

Recent research helps better explain what narcissism is. We have tended to see narcissism as an exaggerated form of high self-esteem but current research teases these two concepts out. And this is a very helpful distinction to make when considering the qualities that contribute to good leadership.

Narcissists and those with high self-esteem both think well of themselves. But while narcissism and self-esteem both arise in part through internalizing the regard of significant others, narcissists tend to have been over-valued and come to internalize the belief  ‘I am superior to others’.  They develop a vertical, hierarchical view of self in relation to others. High self-esteem operates differently, and comes from a core belief that ‘I am worthy’ which originates in experiences of warmth from significant others, and represents a horizontal, non-hierarchical view of self in relation to others.

Narcissists crave respect and admiration because their sense of superiority is precarious, much more so than those with high self-esteem. Narcissists seek continuous validation from others because their vertical view means there’s always a winner and a loser, and they need to be the winner. They continually attempt to surpass and dominate others.

While narcissists can be initially charming, they are also antagonistic towards others and can be disagreeable, arrogant, manipulative and supercilious. It’s this charm, as well as their confidence, that initially suggests their leadership potential.

Narcissists can be mercurial: when they receive the respect and admiration they seek, they are buoyant, but when they don’t, they sink to the depths. When they don’t receive the respect they believe they deserve, they externalize their feelings of shame by lashing out at others. And this is what makes them so difficult to work with and for.

People with high self-esteem but not narcissism feel satisfied with themselves but not superior to others and are not concerned to make themselves appear better than others. They want to establish warm, positive relationships with others and aspire to get along, rather than get ahead. They are unlikely to explode in aggressive outbursts.

Narcissists may or may not have positive self-esteem, so may or may not be happy with themselves all the while seeing themselves as better than others.

One of the young leaders thought that it was all very good to share horror stories, but was more interested in understanding what can you do to lessen the harm narcissists cause. One quick way to spot a narcissist is by listening carefully to their use of ‘I’ versus ‘we’. Moodiness is another give away. An over-riding focus on getting ahead, their own ambition and success is another. Are they readily prepared to break the rules to suit themselves? Do they blame others or put them down? Narcissist alert!

Michael Maccoby’s checklist of suggestions for how to work with a narcissist boss has weathered the test of time:

  • empathize with your boss, but don’t expect that to be reciprocated: find alternate sources for your own needs for feedback and encouragement
  • show your appreciation: image is what matters to the narcissist
  • take his/her paranoid views seriously (but not TOO seriously) as they often reveal the kernel of sharp intuitions
  • disagree and provide constructive feedback carefully: be able to show how a different view or approach benefits the narcissist
  • manage your time carefully: narcissists give many more orders than can be executed: make yourself available based on your boss’ schedule
  • not all of those many orders will make sense: forget the ones that don’t as your boss won’t remember them
  • be prepared to look for another boss (one with high self-esteem this time) if your’s doesn’t let you disagree with him/her, or expects you to keep a schedule that is too punishing and unrewarding for you

And in the unlikely event that you are a narcissist (not that you’re going to admit it!) and you’d rather not have that inscribed on your epitaph, here are some suggestions for you:

  • find a trusted sidekick, to help keep you grounded in reality: it goes against the grain to develop such relationships and to trust the views of others, but they can help guard against isolation and paranoia
  • indoctrinate the organization, converting people to your views, so that they think the way you do
  • get into analysis! Narcissists more usually want to control others than increase their self-awareness and discipline, yet the right kind of personal work can allow you to detach from these needs, increase your effectiveness, and release your staff from the burden of dancing around your capriciousness.
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