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How to Deal with Narcissistic Leaders

By: Dr. Edward Piatt

How To Deal With Narcissistic Leaders By Edward Piatt | IICRC | July 2016 NewsletterRecently, I was hired as an organizational consultant to help a company revamp its company culture and leadership practices. An interesting harbinger that I knew from meeting this CEO years ago was that he was an incessant narcissistic leader.

Every conversation centered on his exploits and how great he was in everything. Ironically, the thing that made him successful with his business contacts was destroying the very culture he hired me to correct. He understood at its core how to "woo" clients, but even he realized that his weakness for leading was destroying his organizational culture and his ability to keep great talent.

From this perspective, and one certainly worth discussing, narcissism has been defined in the psychology literature as the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's own attributes. The term originated from Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. The dangers of being narcissistic are the false and elevated value of self-worth that the individual places on themselves.

But these issues of narcissism have real consequences in the organization. As discussed by leadership authors Campbell and Foster in reviewing the literature on narcissism, they argue that narcissists possess the following "basic ingredients":

  • Positive: Narcissists think they are better than others.
  • Inflated: Narcissists' views tend to be contrary to reality and greatly exaggerated.
  • Special: Narcissists perceive themselves to be unique and special people.
  • Selfish: Research upon narcissists' behavior in resource dilemmas supports the case for narcissists as being selfish.
  • Oriented toward success: Narcissists are oriented toward success by being, for example, approach oriented.


Narcissists tend to demonstrate a lack of interest in warm and caring interpersonal relationships. There are several ongoing controversies within narcissism literature, namely: whether narcissism is healthy or unhealthy, a personality disorder, a discrete or continuous variable, defensive or offensive, the same across genders, the same across cultures and changeable or unchangeable.

In the context of this analysis, narcissism is destructive and, more importantly, the leaders who exhibit these characteristics do not care how much damage they cause. The central issue for narcissistic personalities is that they believe they are special and, to use an old political adage, "They believe their own press clippings."

Logic suggests that narcissistic personalities have a strong tendency to "sell themselves" to others. For example, the leader I was consulting with constantly tried to sell himself to me while simultaneously trying to belittle me in front of his employees. I discovered upon further reflection that he was jealous of my education. Even though he reached success financially, he was an MBA dropout. Apparently, reaching the pinnacle of financial success still carries the weight of not achieving personal or educational goals.

Given what we know and what I have described about narcissistic leaders, how then do we deal with such egregious and demeaning behavior in the organization? Lolly Daskal, president and CEO of Lead from Within, offers some compelling advice. Daskal points out that narcissistic leaders exhibit a sense of entitlement and superiority, a strong need for attention, a single-minded focus, a lack of empathy, constant criticism of others, high levels of aggression and an unwillingness to hear feedback.

Paradoxically, these narcissistic leaders know deep down that they exhibit these traits and reach out for help to reduce the very toxicity they create. However, as much as they try to reduce the toxic effects of their behavior, they cannot change it. Their strong personality disorder prevents them from implementing the advice they are desperately seeking.

Christopher Lasch, noted author of "The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations," offers some interesting advice: The ambivalence some leaders feel is that they will be perceived as less strong, less authoritative and less forceful if they are not narcissistic.

Perhaps, but will leaders get better results? Undeniably, up to a certain point. That's not to say the leader shouldn't be authoritative or forceful or strong. Those qualities are necessary for overseeing a group, but the leader must supplement and moderate these traits with other leadership dimensions.

Given the dictates of leadership, perhaps it's time to reassess what qualities we stress in a good leader — and what qualities we perceive as signs of weakness. While we see great leaders who lean toward being narcissistic, the gap between reality and perception is a persistent one — and one that leaves us with leaders who may look to be the picture of effectiveness, but are actually the very things that are keeping true effectiveness from being fully realized.

In the end, if we are dealing with toxic and narcissistic leaders, it is up to us to deal with it. They are not going to change, but we can change how we react to these types of demagogues. Above all else, keep a positive outlook when dealing with a narcissistic leader, and recognize that they may need professional help. Don't get caught up in other people's stories, but do your best with the situation you are in. If all else fails, remove yourself before the toxicity does lasting damage.
 



Dr. Edward Piatt, Ed.D., is a retired manager from the state of Illinois with 32 years of frontline leadership experience. He is an adjunct professor of business in the MBA and MOL programs at Olivet Nazarene University. He is also an organizational/economic development consultant and lectures frequently on Emotional Intelligence (EI), organizational culture, and leadership. You may contact him at epiatt@olivet.edu.




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