The Narcissist Leader (Part 1)

This is the first of a two part posting on the Narcissist Leader.  Part I will provide the foundation for understanding, distinguishing, and recognizing the differences between the strengths of a narcissist leader and the overuse of these strengths.  Part II will highlight lessons learned from personal coaching experiences with this type of leader.

Part I – Definition, Symptoms, and Consequences

“(The leader’s) intellectual acts are strong and independent even in isolation and his will need no reinforcement from others … (He) loves no one but himself, or other people only insofar as they serve his needs.”    

— Freud, Sigmund, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”

It was late, and we were still working.  Across the table was our client Jay, the CEO of a venture capital backed organization.  Recognizing an opportunity created by federal legislation/regulation, Jay acted swiftly and propelled the organization from a small start-up to a mid-sized organization experiencing exponential growth.  Jay was an immensely charismatic leader with a vibrant personality who, starting from a very humble background, experienced early success for his efforts.  His drive gained him admission to the most prestigious undergraduate and graduate institutions in the country.

He was relentlessly driven by competition, success, his mission to change the world, and an insatiable thirst for recognition and public admiration. During our meeting, one of the members of our team noticed that Jay seemed to be looking past him into a distant horizon.  Eventually, our colleague followed Jay’s gaze to a window with a reflection of Jay’s image.  Jay had been gazing at and perhaps admiring his image even as he spoke with us.  This did not strike us as unusual as we had been experiencing Jay’s need for power and recognition in every aspect of the organizational decision making.  He made it known that he needed to understand and approve decisions in all areas and at nearly every level in the organization. In a number of meetings, he could not contain himself.  He often jumped to the front of the room, seeming to project an impatience with the meeting lead of the moment.  Of course, he was articulate and smart and could often come up with a quick solution to any problem being addressed.  In the front of the room, he made it clear that he had the answers.

On several occasions, based on our concerns as well as those expressed by colleagues, we tried, unsuccessfully to provide constructive feedback and  to coach him.  While moving at the speed of light, emboldended by his own brilliance, he simply could not hear our message nor see the danger signs surrounding him and the organization.  Eventually, his self-absorbed impatience with the speed and capability of others, coupled with his own talent and inability to see his blind spots, led him to decisions that drove the organization into bankruptcy.

His will to win and crush the competition drove him to drive the organization much too hard and fast. The organization did not have the infrastructure and talent to respond to his mandate to grow at unrealistic levels. Cash flow ran dry and customer service suffered significant damage.  In an effort to not lose market share and to patch negative publicity, the field force turned to questionable practices resulting in ethical and legal issues. State regulatory organizations brought legal actions against the organization.  Concerned banks and vendors began to demand payment on time and would not compromise. Jay was eventually unable to secure additional venture funding and the organization imploded.

Narcissism is defined as—“dominant interest in one’s self; the state in which the ego is invested in oneself rather than in another person.  Self Love.

It is usually characterized by an excessive display of love and admiration of oneself. This pre-occupation with the self often diminishes empathy for others. At a psychological level, it is usually driven by unconscious deficits in self-esteem and a need for external validation such as attention and admiration from others or obsession with attention-attracting possessions.

Freud named this type of personality after a mythical figure, Narcissus, who died because of his psychological obsession with himself.

Of course narcissism can also be positive.  Narcissists have motivated and inspired others to reach great accomplishments. Donald Trump and Larry Ellison of Oracle might be some of several leaders who come to mind  These leaders see the world as it can be and not as is.  They don’t shy away from risk or the necessary effort to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  A narcissist has a strong back bone and the audacity to not take no for an answer and to push through resistance.  He has extraordinary oratory skills, charm, and charisma that allow him to influence and motivate the masses in support of his grand vision.  His followers want to like and follow him and to receive his approval.

However, these strengths can also be “overused”.  The same energy and skills that make the narcissist successful when overused can lead to his downfall.  Grand vision when not responsive to change or new information can become an impediment to creativity and innovation.  Resolve and resilience to push through obstacles to achieve extraordinary success can become the source for engaging in brutal and senseless dysfunctional behaviors designed to eliminate opposition, win at any cost, and to cause burnout in the organization.  The courage and risk taking mindset that provided the organization opportunities to experiment and be an industry leader can turn into a high stake reckless poker game that created the financial collapse of 2007 and the downfall of Enron.

Success is the enemy of the dysfunctional narcissist. As he gains power, wealth, and adulation he sees himself as of a higher order and not bound by ordinary societal conventions and rules. He gravitates towards a survival of fittest mindset.  The more his followers bestow admiration on him the more isolated he becomes. He will not hear those that are trying in earnest to help him.  He starts to reward and recognize those that are aligned with his views and distances himself from the others.

The fall of the narcissist leader is a tragic and gut-wrenching event to witness.  Not only because of the toll it takes on those that surround them, but also the personal agony and pain that the narcissist experiences.  The narcissist is usually marching to a different drum in his head and is generally oblivious to the emerging disaster surrounding him.  He lacks self awareness, understanding, and empathy for others and is distrustful and even revengeful of any source that contradicts them. Maurice Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, and Donald Trump make a practice of threatening or taking legal action against those they see as presenting unflattering depictions of them.

In the next posting, I will pick up at this juncture and further chronicle the normal demise of narcissist leaders overusing their strenghts and my experiences in coaching them.

Questions For On-line Conversation

  1. Have you experienced Narcissist tendencies in yourself?  If yes were you able to manage it productively?
  2. Have you been led by or worked with a narcissist leader? What lessons or takeaways would you like to share with the readers?
  3. Have you through your actions empowered a narcissist? Tell us about it…

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

4 Responses to The Narcissist Leader (Part 1)

  1. Ling says:

    Great post, Kaveh. I think there’s a fine line between being a narcissistic leader and a confident leader. I see both as points on a spectrum, where the farther you move away from confident and toward narcissistic the more you lose touch with reality. In many instances this transition is through a natural course of events, much like what you wrote “Success is the enemy of the dysfunctional narcissist. As he gains power, wealth, and adulation he sees himself as of a higher order and not bound by ordinary societal conventions and rules.” One of the most effective leaders I’ve worked with tended toward the narcissistic end of the spectrum, but through conversations with him I saw that he was able to objectively evaluate himself and his circumstances on a regular basis. These “reality-touchpoints” allowed him to maintain the strengths of a narcissistic leader while minimizing the consequences of being one.

    • Aaron Small says:

      I agree with the idea that the confident and narcissist leader are just two points on a spectrum of leadership qualities. Ling proposes that reality-touchpoints are one way to keep narcissistic leadership qualities from spiraling out of control. I wonder what other tactics can be used to keep the potential negative consequences of an overly confident leader in check?

      If over-confidence tends to make a leader ignore the obvious warning signs, including well-intentioned advice of his or her closest advisers, then how is it possible to break out of the ever building cycle of narcissism? Can a narcissistic leader find balance, or are they doomed to eventually burn out?

  2. Kaveh Naficy says:

    Aaron and Ling great points. I guess you will have to wait until next posting on my experience coaching the narcissist leaders.

    • Keith West says:

      I agree that this is an excellent post. It seems to me that a focus on the “people side” of the leadership equation as well as the concept of servant leadership would help leaders stay grounded and avoid “narcissistic” tendencies. Leaders that tend to be narcissistic may very well have the “vision/strategy/planning” aspect of leadership nailed, but they often haven’t realized the importance of developing and fostering relationships with their people. A successful executive has to get work done through others–this is what makes the people side of the equation so vital. If the leader is self-absorbed, chances are they aren’t spending sufficient energy and time cultivating the all important relationships with their people.

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