- The narcissist’s primitive need for “greatness” sabotages the capacity to actually be a “great” leader.
- The narcissist’s power-based control blocks the development of cohesiveness and positive group dynamics.
- Narcissistic leaders build malignant cultures and mistreat members of the team.
Narcissism can ruin lives in numerous ways, but when a leader is a narcissist, the damage can be exponentially greater. Narcissists are drawn to leadership positions. Others, charmed by their charisma, often promote them into positions of power based on their perceived leadership potential. It is only a matter of time before narcissistic leaders reveal their true colors.
As a group, high-functioning narcissists present as likeable, smart, and compelling high achievers. Their ambition, talent, and charisma make them attractive candidates, whether it’s for the local school board or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When narcissists initially take the reins, things generally begin to look better in terms of positive change in the organization. However, their initial promise eventually gives way to an unexpected darker side.
The seduction of the narcissistic leader is akin to the seduction of the narcissist spouse:
“He was so kind and loving and attentive, but after we were married, he changed. He turned selfish and demanding, downright mean.”
And, for the leader:
“She was so talented and ambitious, likeable and cooperative. But after she got the job, she changed. She took charge without regard for the feelings of others and bullied people into the positions she favored. It was a nightmare.”
Eventually, as in all their relationships, the narcissist’s pathology takes center stage.
Leadership 101: what we know about good leaders
Too-many-to-mention leadership studies have identified characteristics common to successful leaders, such as vision, integrity, self-awareness, respect, collaboration, communication, ambition, and compassion. According to these studies, leaders show strong competencies (intelligence, knowledge, understanding, etc.) supported by good communication (strengths in expressive skills, organizing and sharing information, etc.), high drive (persistence, hard work, grit, ambition, etc.), and interpersonal talent (cooperation, EQ, etc.). While high-functioning narcissists possess many of these characteristics, their deficits outweigh their strengths.
In the classic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, Jim Collins identified five levels of leadership. The highest category he designated as “Level 5 Leadership,” people who displayed a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will:
“While incredibly ambitious, their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”
The ability Collins describes—to put the organization’s needs first and embrace ambition for the organization or cause, rather than for the self—demonstrates a healthy self-concept. In other words, there is evidence that the best leaders are not narcissists.
Narcissists can be good leaders for a period of time, but rarely over the long haul. When the self-serving goals of a new senator do not match that of the committee he’s been assigned to, difficulties inevitably arise. A narcissistic CEO might start to show her deficiencies once there is conflict between the narcissist and board members. When any narcissist leader—whether they're leading a school board, a foundation, a congregation, or a company—is threatened or criticized, deficiencies emerge in a dysfunctional wrangling to maintain narcissistic control.
A look inside: when and how does the narcissist go wrong?
The roots of narcissism are set in childhood. Over the course of development, nonnarcissistic children leave behind many emotional immaturities (i.e., selfishness, demanding behavior, and tantrums), while their narcissistic peers do not. In addition, nonnarcissistic children develop new abilities (i.e., empathy, cooperation, better coping skills, more accurate understandings), while their narcissistic age mates do not. The narcissist’s stunted growth hardens into dysfunctional traits over time.
What qualities do nonnarcissistic leaders possess that narcissistic leaders lack?
A number of core emotional abilities essential to good leaders are discussed in my book, Childhood Narcissism: How to Raise Unentitled, Unselfish, and Empathetic Children:
- Ability to put the needs of others first
- Concern for fairness
- Ability to compromise
- Capacity for moderation
- Concern for the feelings of others
- Respect for the contribution of each person to the larger whole
- Capacity for accurate, nondistorted assessment and reasoning
- Ability to regulate emotions
- Capacity to share control with others
The inability to put the needs of others above the needs of the “self” always results in errors in judgment. The goals of the narcissistic “self” and those of the larger “other” are rarely identical. The narcissist’s lack of concern for the feelings of others means that the “other” will always be unimportant to the narcissist and will suffer being hurt or devalued.
Why narcissists fail as leaders
The deficits in narcissistic leaders result in predictable outcomes:
- Selfishness comes at the price of a lack of good judgment.
- Prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others does not inspire confidence or build healthy teams.
- Power-based direction and control prevent cohesive and positive group dynamics.
- Small, selfish goals as opposed to those based on the “common good” build unhealthy groups and organizations that tend to fracture into divisive subgroups.
- Selfishness prioritizes short-term wins at the risk of long-term success.
- Arrogant, insensitive leadership does not develop other talent within the organization.
- Inaccurate assessment and biased thinking result in errors in judgment and poor planning.
Paradoxically, in the end, the narcissist’s primitive need for “greatness” sabotages the capacity to actually be a “great” leader.
What are the dangers of the narcissist in power?
Narcissists in leadership positions have power, and that power increases their ability to do harm. Anyone who functions in the orbit of a narcissistic leader is at risk, as is any organization that has one at its helm. Narcissistic leaders tend to damage their organizations in various ways:
- Create pathological group dynamics
- Contribute to dysfunctional organizations and systems
- Build malignant cultures
- Attract other narcissists
- Risk ethical violations
- Mistreat members of the team
- Use people and discard them when their usefulness is over
- Punish those who cross them
- Break rules that do not serve their goals
- Create chaos
- Model and promote unhealthy management strategies
Narcissists prove to be poor parents, unsatisfying friends, inadequate spouses, and insecure individuals. Equally compelling, they make lousy leaders.
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2011.
Little, Mary Ann. Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children. Rowman & Littlefield, 2023.
How Narcissistic Leaders Destroy from Within: When the Person at the Top is Malignant and Self-serving, Unethical Behavior Cascades through the Organization and Becomes Legitimatized. Stanford Graduate School of Business. https://stanford.io/3f4169L