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narcissistic leadership

Narcissistic Leadership

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Leaders and their leadership styles play a vital role in societies' organizations and their activities. Leaders formulate policies, visions, missions, and objectives to accomplish goals and deliver results. Organizational scholars conduct extensive research to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of various leadership styles. In the contemporary era, a new leadership style known as Narcissistic Leadership has gained vast popularity. Consequently, it is essential to comprehend and evaluate the pros and cons of this leadership style.

Narcissistic leadership is based upon the psychological concept of narcissism. The lexicology of narcissism is traced to Narcissus' Greek myth, a legend of vain self-love and infatuation.

A review of Narcissistic literature shows that Havelock Ellis, a prominent psychologist (1898), was the first to coin the word narcissism on the myth of Narcissus. He described it as a perverse condition of self-love. Otto Rank (1911) linked narcissism to vanity and self-admiration. Sigmund Freud worked extensively on this subject and described it as one of the personality types in 1914. Since these times, numerous scholars have delved into it, and now narcissism is also used to explain today's leaders' behavior and actions.

Contemporary scholars state that there are two types of narcissistic behavior (California Management Review-2020). These can be plotted on the opposite ends of a continuum and are:

  • Vulnerable or Covert Narcissism: People with this type express a high level of anxiety, fragile self-image, and defensiveness. It is based on low self-esteem.

  • Grandiose or Overt Narcissism: These people are known to be assertive, extroverted, have high self-esteem, and have a sense of personal superiority and entitlement. They are willing to exploit others for their gains and express hostility when challenged.

  • It is the grandiose type of person who loves to be in leadership and influential positions. "Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention." (Psychology Today). There is no doubt that all human beings are narcissistic to some extent. Although some people may occasionally show their excessive need for admiration and self-importance, it is a social issue when it becomes a lifestyle.

    What is Narcissistic Leadership?

    "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves." -T.S. Eliot

    The narcissistic leadership style is often described by stating its traits and actions.

    Merriam Webster dictionary defines narcissistic as: "...extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance: marked by or characteristic of excessive admiration of or infatuation with oneself." Hence the Narcissistic Leadership style is known for "...in which the leader is only interested in him/herself...at the expense of their people/group members. This leader exhibits the characteristics of a narcissist: arrogance, dominance, and hostility."

    The American Psychological Association (APA) defines narcissistic leaders as:

    "Narcissistic leaders have grandiose belief systems and leadership styles and are generally motivated by their needs for power and admiration rather than empathetic concern for the constituents and institutions they lead."

    The pertinent elements of all these definitions are that the narcissistic leadership style is known for attaining grandiosity, admiration, unlimited success and power, arrogance, entitlement, and lack of empathy. The question is what factors have contributed to the rise of narcissistic leadership.

    Rise of Narcissistic Leadership

    Narcissistic leadership is not new, and there are ample examples of narcissists who ruled the world and changed societies' course. There is abundant documentation to show that the most renowned military, religious, social, and political leaders were narcissists. Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler always come up in the top 10 famous narcissists list. Jeffrey Kluger, the author of Narcissist Nextdoor, observes that "Even our greatest and most humble people, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. had to have narcissistic components...they gravitated toward attention, they gravitated toward crowds."

    Pew research shows that political leaders "...are more narcissistic than the average American. Moreover, the level of grandiose narcissism in presidents has increased in recent decades." By establishing themselves in leadership roles, they perpetuate and brainwash people with their agendas and viewpoints.

    Numerous factors have contributed to the rise of narcissistic leadership. Michael Maccoby highlights several of these factors in his award-winning essay in the Harvard Business Review. Some of these factors are:

    Changing Role of CEOs: Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries have seen the rise of industrial and business enterprises. These initiatives created a new class of narcissistic CEOs. Such CEOs started taking roles beyond their competencies and began to enjoy coverage in public media. According to Maccoby:

    "...today's CEOs...hire their own publicists, write books, grant spontaneous interviews, and actively promote their personal philosophies. Their faces adorn the covers of magazines like Business Week, Time, and The Economist."

    Accordingly, these CEOs have become the makers and shapers of policies on all issues that might be beyond their expertise. They have opinions and solutions to all problems such as health, education, climate change, and other such topics. These attention-seeking actions satisfy their ego, provide publicity, and help them build grandiose public personas.

    Times of Turmoil: O'Reilly from the Stanford Graduate School of Management, says that companies choose narcissistic leaders in times of turmoil and change. "In the last few decades, big companies like automakers and banks have been threatened by technological disruption. So, you could imagine that in anxious times people are looking for a hero, a confident person who says, 'I have a solution.'" During challenging times, the public looks for charismatic and confident leaders who can articulate the masses' message.

    Changing business models: Venture capitalists also love narcissists, according to O'Reilly. They like to sponsor charismatic, self-assured extroverts who promise great results. Investors believe an entrepreneur who says, "My product is going to change the world, and I am going to be the next Jeff Bezos." This kind of investment model attracts narcissists by sponsoring charismatic, self-assured extroverts, etc., to influential positions.

    Strengths of Narcissistic Leaders

    "It is probably not an exaggeration to state that if individuals with significant narcissistic characteristics were stripped from the ranks of public figures, the ranks would be perilously thinned." Jerrod M. Post.

    Narcissistic leaders are often perceived as visionary, confident, forceful, charismatic, and change agents. According to Michael Maccoby (2000):"...narcissism can be extraordinarily useful - even necessary...narcissists are risk-takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric."

    The present-day tech industries are a testament to such leaders. As cited in Stanford Business, online magazine, "...plenty of venerated CEOs, from Oracle's Larry Ellison to Tesla's Elon Musk to the late Steve Jobs at Apple, have been described as narcissists. Success for such leaders is often attributed to their bold vision, extreme self-confidence, and determination to win at all costs."

    As Steve Jobs said, "Let's go invent tomorrow rather than worrying about what happened yesterday." His visionary attribute contributed to developing Apple as the most valuable company globally, but he was equally known for his narcissistic traits. There is also Jeff Bezos, known as The Builder, Innovator, and Narcissistic Leader. Such leaders may project narcissistic traits, but they bring badly needed changes to society.

    Narcissistic leaders project confidence and are risk-takers. It is their confidence and ability to take risks that drive them to take different paths. Being persuasive, they are not afraid to influence and convince others about their ideas and policies.

    Narcissistic leaders implement their views with highly developed oratorial skills. They deliver inspirational and motivational speeches to stir enthusiasm and attract followers. Through skillful oratory, they build grandiose images of themselves and satisfy their inflated egos. Societies also look for self-confident and self-assured people to lead them into new paths. As stated by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries: "All people, especially leaders, need a healthy dose of narcissism...it's the engine that drives leadership."

    Weaknesses of Narcissistic Leaders

    Although narcissistic leaders are much-admired for their positive qualities, they are equally known for their weaknesses or the dark side of their leadership style. O'Reilly states:

    "We see the 10% of narcissists that succeeded and call them visionaries...We're not looking at the 90% who flamed out and caused irreparable damage."

    Twenge and Campbell express the same views on Narcissists as Leaders:

    "Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success doesn't last long. They are overconfident and not good team players. They sell others on an inflated image of what they can do, but they can't fulfill it."

    Narcissistic leaders are known to be visionaries, but, according to Seth R. from Harvard, they have "...leadership visions that are synonymous with their personal needs, rather than those of their constituents." They use their visions to inflate their ego, and it is all about "I did this, I implemented this policy, etc." It is always 'Me' Trumps 'We'. They use intimidation and manipulative strategies to achieve their recognition needs.

    It is difficult for narcissistic leaders to establish collaborations and consensus as they are not team players. They may say they want teamwork, but literally, it means, "they want a group of yes-men. As the more independent-minded players leave or are pushed out, succession becomes a particular problem." (HBR-2004). They also cannot tolerate subordinates or colleagues who may differ and dissent. Steve Jobs is known as one such leader who repeatedly humiliated his associates and was known as a mean-spirited jerk.

    Narcissistic leaders do not like criticism, are highly defensive of their actions, and are typically poor listeners. One such leader bragged about his lack of listening skills as he stated, "I didn't get here by listening to people!(Ibid)."

    Narcissistic CEOs do not attract top talent because the best people need respect and freedom. Narcissistic CEOs are happy to surround themselves with sycophants who will echo their leader's words and actions. It is not easy for them to establish relationships and sustain their companies. There are ample examples of companies when leaders promised big, craved for glory, faked the results, and suddenly disappeared from the market. Theranos is an example of one such company founded by Elizabeth Holmes. "...To outsiders, Holmes was charming, and she soaked up praise from press and investors. But behind closed doors, she was a toxic boss who exhibited narcissistic behavior." She promised outstanding accomplishments, enjoyed the glory, satisfied her ego but could not deliver results. Books and movies have documented the journey of this leader.


    Narcissism and related behavior have become the modus operandi for many contemporary leaders. According to neuroscience news "We live in an age of narcissistic leadership. Around the world, we are witnessing the rise and fall of narcissistic leaders - people who hold grandiose views of themselves, who believe laws and regulations don't apply to them, and who crave the respect and admiration of their followers." Individuals with such attitudes strive to attain top organizational positions; after achieving them, they try their best to stay there.

    Despite the multitude of positive strengths of this leadership style, it is widely acknowledged for its negative impact on society and its organizations. As stated in Stanford Business, "Narcissistic Leaders Destroy from Within...When the person at the top is malignant and self-serving, unethical behavior cascades through the organization and becomes legitimized."

    Consequently, public and private organizations and societal members need to be judicious in selecting their leaders. Leaders' selection should not be based entirely on extroverted traits such as charisma, charm, confidence, and rhetorical skills. Societies and companies should choose leaders that demonstrate work-related competencies, interpersonal skills, and emotional intelligence. Research shows stakes in selecting leaders are high. As O'Reilly states, once narcissists get to leadership positions, "these people aren't going to change." Neither are the negative results of their narcissistic behavior.

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