Walls, Wars and Parades: Understanding Narcissistic Leaders
A bio/psycho/social theory of why their patterns of behavior are predictable.
Posted Jun 20, 2018
Whether you are dealing with a narcissistic supervisor, business owner or political leader, the basic patterns of their behavior can be quite predictable. Of course, their personalities exist on a continuum from narcissistic personality traits (which may be mildly annoying to those around them) to narcissistic personality disorder (social impairment without self-reflection or behavior change) to malignant narcissism (a cruel and sadistic combination with antisocial personality disorder). I have observed all of these personalities in dysfunctional families, legal cases, workplace conflicts and business disputes.
The Basic Pattern
Not all narcissists desire to be leaders. Many are simply self-absorbed, brag a lot and may primarily sabotage themselves without self-awareness. But when narcissists desire to be leaders, it is often to fulfill personality-based goals which may have little to do with their job descriptions. Instead of focusing on leading a successful enterprise and motivating others, they are preoccupied with three basic drives: 1) being seen as very superior, 2) expanding their own power and 3) being admired by all.
Walls: For this reason, much of their efforts go into dividing people into winners and losers, with those below them being berated as losers and those above them being charmed as winners. (Think of this as “kicking down” and “kissing up.”) Of course, as time goes by, they attempt to scramble higher and higher by walking on the winners who helped them up and who they now view as losers. In a sense, they arrogantly erect walls (mostly verbal, but sometimes physical) between themselves and those who are “beneath” them. To convince themselves of their own greatness, they have to constantly insult others (their Targets of Blame).
Wars: They are also highly defensive, so that the slightest criticism may send them into battle as they try to prove that they are really superior and that their critics are really inferior. They see all relationships as inherently adversarial and therefore are ready to go to war (verbally or otherwise) at the drop of a hat. This can totally distract them from the work at hand, but they can’t help themselves. They are constantly rebounding from one “crisis” to the next, even though these are mostly self-inflicted. Yet they pride themselves on how powerful and superior they are, so that they are almost eager to pick a fight just to prove how great they are or to move up the organizational ladder.
Parades: Lastly, this basic leadership pattern includes demands for excessive doses of admiration. They are driven to get compliments for themselves, if possible by impressing other high-status people, but often by demanding deep respect from the same people they have been insulting. They take credit for what others have done and deny responsibility for their own mistakes. They are constantly fighting to overcome their own “narcissistic injuries” (when their imperfections are exposed) by attacking those who don’t admire them enough. They are constantly seeking trophies that they can show off to others and pushing for public displays of affection for themselves, such as parties (or parades).
Child Abuse Theory
Why would someone behave like this, often to their own detriment? The leading theory is that they were abused as a child, or had an insecure attachment in early childhood. Growing up, the person tries to overcompensate for being belittled and powerless by creating a superior “false self” that he or she presents to the public as particularly talented and special. Of course, this false self keeps having narcissistic injuries, so the person tries harder and harder to prove how superior he or she is. But it’s a vicious cycle, because it can’t get resolved by proving superiority. It gets resolved, if at all, by healing the abusive past, learning to accept one’s ordinary place in real life, realizing that set-backs are normal and experiencing empathy for simply being a person. These learnings can happen in therapy, but few narcissists are willing to go.
Another theory is that the child grew up in an indulgent family environment which taught superiority on a daily basis. Rather than being abused, the person had no limits and their needs and wants were eagerly met. They expect to be indulged as an adult, by their partner, their boss and their community.
Wannabe King Theory
My theory is that many leaders with narcissistic personality disorder are that way because of heredity. I have worked with many families with several children who are quite different, even though they were raised in the same household in the same basic way. Yet, one of them has this personality disorder and the others don’t. Often there’s no abuse history or a minor abuse history. Yet the person grows up with the same full-blown Walls-Wars-and-Parades mentality.
I believe that this personality “disorder” may be in the human gene pool because it was once very functional. These patterns of behavior could be hold-overs from ancient times in a very specific way. They are what I call Wannabe Kings. In ancient times, narcissistic leaders often arose because they were very adversarial and took power and held onto it. At first, village chieftains were at the top of the village social hierarchy. They organized the village to feed itself, get along and also to protect itself from outsiders. Narcissists are good at getting people together and sweeping them up in their grandiose schemes.
Over time, as humans grew in numbers, village chieftains were replaced by more powerful leaders, eventually kings and occasionally queens. For protection, ancient kingdoms had to have walls. They kept out the dangerous enemies who would try to attack them and take over the kingdom.
These leaders were also constantly at war, both to protect themselves and to expand their kingdoms. Lastly, in order to show the king’s power and the people’s love, they would have parades. This constant pattern of kingly behavior seems very specific and very common to a vast number of chieftains and kings (and some queens) throughout history. It makes sense that over time we would still have a percentage of people with this personality in our gene pool. Society has changed rapidly over the past thousand years, much faster than human genetics.
In addition to Walls, Wars and Parades, the king got to tell the unifying stories of the kingdom. Who we are. How we should behave. Why we are victorious. Who our enemies are. Who we can trust and who we can’t trust inside the kingdom. Most kingdoms had public punishments for those who violated one of the king’s rules or who he didn’t like on a whim. Everything revolved around the king. He conditioned the people to eventually accept his way of thinking on every subject. Before books and constitutions and legislatures and courts, this may have actually worked for the consolidation and efficiency of society.
On the other hand, this much power in one person could be particularly lethal if the narcissistic king was also a sociopath--had an antisocial personality. Sometimes this combination is called malignant narcissism. This would add cruelty, humiliation and sadism to their efforts. When building a wall, they might make the local people do all the work, even though it was designed to keep them out. When waging war, they would often have their troops sexually abuse the women, kidnap their children, and steal their crops. Dominance is the theme for antisocial personalities, so that showing that they had total control over other people’s lives and bodies, their children and their property, would be enjoyable for them—sometimes just for the sake of feeling on top.
I believe there are many people today who have this Walls-Wars-and-Parades pattern at all levels of society. But these instincts or skills are totally counter-productive in the rules-based, collaborative modern world. Today, these behaviors are truly a disorder. The person is often internally distressed and socially impaired. They alienate the people around them and can be quite abusive. They end up with few, if any, real friends.
Yet they have no clue why they act the way they do and sometimes regret it. But this is who they are. This may help us have empathy for them, but also recognize that they are very unlikely to have insight into their own in-born behavior and are very unlikely to change. Therefore, we need to understand these patterns and set limits on them sooner rather than later, to protect modern society.
For tips on how to spot narcissists and methods for dealing with them, see some of my other Psychology Today blogs and my new book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High-Conflict Personalities.