Table of contents
First, the dictionary definition of narcissism, in a psychological context is: "Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." (Oxford English Dictionary)
I am grateful to James Scouller, an expert coach, thinker, and writer on leadership, for the contribution of most of the technical content on this article, and for the collaboration in editing it and presenting it here. Aside from what follows here, Scouller's expertise in leadership theory is evidenced particularly in his 2011 book "The Three Levels of Leadership", which I commend to you.
In fact the term is applied far more widely than this, depending on context, from reference to severe mental disorder, ranging through many informal social interpretations typically referring to elitism and arrogance, and at the opposite end of the scale, to a healthy interest in one's own mind and wellbeing, related to feelings of high emotional security - the opposite of insecurity and inadequacy.
As for narcissistic leadership, the dictionary definition of narcissism is a good starting point, but as we shall see, this leadership style is very difficult to define precisely, and is arguably better viewed as a flexible scale, or a sort of continuum.
Narcissistic leadership is a style that began to capture public attention from 2000 onwards following a flurry of articles and books by Michael Maccoby, Kets de Vries and others.
In essence, narcissistic leadership refers to leadership by a narcissist and the co-dependent relationship it involves between the leader and his closest circle of followers.
Narcissism - in a negative psychological and leadership sense - stems from an unconscious active behavioural response to deep, unrecognized feelings of inadequacy. This means that the person is unconsciously driven by hidden feelings of inadequacy, to behave in a controlling and energetic way, which enables dominance and initiative.
The passive response to a narcissistic condition does not produce a leadership intent, instead commonly people:
- Feel deeply inadequate
- Believe failure comes from trying new or bold things, and so
- Decide that it's better not to take a risk
- (Basically people think that risk = failure = humiliation, so avoid risk and then for sure feel inadequate, or justify avoidance by saying the risky opportunity was of no value or misguided)
However, conventionally described narcissists respond to their feelings of inadequacy in the opposite way and are more extraverted and outward in their behaviours. They tend to strive to succeed in public, to be better than others, to have more than others, to feel superior, and to win respect, admiration, and acclaim from others.
The main feature of the narcissist in a leadership context is a drive to succeed, motivated by a (usually) hidden sense of inferiority and inadequacy.
However, as already explained, narcissism varies in intensity from very mild (basically inconsequential) to pathological conditions (referring to sickness/disease/illness). At the pathological end is a severe personality disorder. It is tempting to suggest that some of today's biggest corporations, and some countries, are led by people possessing such extreme tendencies, although this might be a slight exaggeration; hopefully you see the point. Narcissism, perhaps especially in extreme forms, can enable and sustain leaders in significant leadership roles, for a significant time. The situation will probably be very unhealthy for their followers and for lots more people connected to the group, but the leader, given extreme narcissism will not be troubled by this at all.
Conversely, there are various forms and interpretations of positive healthy narcissism. For each possible negative characteristic there exists a positive alternative:
An interesting paper, 'The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers' (Roy Lubit, 2002) published by the Academy of Management in 2002, highlighted examples of this positive/negative aspect of narcissism by contrasting the positive/negative effects of certain impulses, the main examples summarised here:
- Confidence - is potentially helpful or unrealistic;
- Power/admiration-seeking - is potentially a healthy energy or reckless;
- Relationships - potentially entail concern for others, or 'spin' and remorseless exploitation of others
- Consistency/direction - potentially has values or lacks values
The variable interpretation of this trait inevitably hinders specific definition of 'narcissistic leadership'. Aside from deciding whether the narcissism contains healthy elements or not, assumptions are required as to extent of negativity. Simply - how serious is the leader's narcissistic behaviour? Logically then we can think of narcissistic leadership as being a flexible concept or continuum.
A very basic presentation of a 'narcissistic leadership continuum' is offered below. The continuum is expressed with a strong bias towards the negative extreme because in practice this is more typical in groups where a narcissistic leader is in charge. Also, this leadership style would be relatively unremarkable if the majority of narcissistic leaders had positive healthy personalities. In reality, narcissistic leadership succeeds (with limited and qualified and sometimes disastrous effects) because of a leader's negative tendencies. These may combine constantly or occasionally with a few positive aspects, but broadly the effects of narcissistic leadership are negative.
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Positive and negative aspects merge here.
Positive aspects may be or occasionally become prominent and enabling towards aims, which helps to sustain the style and the leader, and the followers.
Leader does not have good self-image.
Gathers people who bolster leader's self-esteem.
Co-dependence between leader and followers if they also suffer hidden feelings of inadequacy.
Without realising it, followers cluster around the narcissistic leader to feel better about themselves by association.
Followers work with the 'impressive, important leader so we too must share these qualities to some degree' - or so they believe.
There is emotional and potentially material and reputational benefit for leader and followers.
The sense of inadequacy that drives a narcissistic leader is also the source of the common problems of narcissistic leadership. This is because these leaders are often:
- Prone to grandiose, unrealistic visions and over-estimating their wisdom and judgement - so they may take foolish risks.
- Unusually sensitive to criticism and liable to fly into a rage - which makes it hard and risky to disagree with them or tell them bad news. It can also make them slow to learn.
- Lacking in empathy - and because narcissistic leaders are often very 'street-wise', followers may be exploited with no care for consequences. This is unethical and potentially unlawful too (given the rightful toughening of employment laws), and eventually causes followers to desert or mutiny if exploitation is too great and rewards are too scant.
- Likely to gather a bunch of 'yes-men' around them, which can lead to poor decisions.
- Distrustful and so keen to win that they can create an atmosphere of infighting, suspicion and intense internal competition, making teamwork harder.
Note that narcissistic leadership and charismatic leadership can overlap because narcissists are often charismatic.
There are other similar characteristics between the styles - potentially many, given the vagueness of the two styles.
However, not all charismatic leaders are acting from a deep unrecognised sense of inadequacy.
Again we see that a leadership style offers lots of useful insights as to what makes leadership effective and ineffective, but also demonstrates that a leadership style is not a suitable theoretical concept by which to teach, learn, apply and adapt effective leadership.
I am grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.
James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and trained in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.
James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill". It was published in May 2011. I commend it to you, and his thinking too.
You can learn more about James Scouller's book at three-levels-of-leadership.com.
Details of James Scouller's executive coaching work are at TheScoullerPartnership.co.uk.