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Leadership and Narcissism

by David Brock on May 17th, 2009

Narcissistic Leaders, we’ve seen too many of them. In good times, their visions can be compelling. They can be charismatic, inspiring followers. Those positive characteristics are overshadowed by their terrible weaknesses—and these challenging times are likely to accentuate these weaknesses.

Ben Dattner, of Dattner Consulting, has an outstanding summary of characteristics of narcissistic managers. These include:

1. Grandiose sense of self importance, tend to exaggerate achievements and talents, expect to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
2. Preoccupied with fantasize of unlimited success, power, brilliance.
3. Believes he/she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or associate with other special or high status people.
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement or unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is inter-personally exploitative, takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others.
8. If often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

We know how to recognize them—they focus only on themselves. Their primary goals are what makes them look good, what gets them ahead, and how they can use others to get them what they want.

Narcissistic managers can’t be wrong. It may be difficult for them to be accountable, errors are usually someone else’s fault. They become blind to the real issues around them. They don’t listen well, so they may not understand what’s going on in the organization. This can cause the manager and the organization to be dysfunctional or desperately out of touch.

Because they exaggerate their own importance, downplaying the contribution of others, they need to be at the center of things, seeking constant attention and positive reinforcement of others. They may be threatened with any disagreement or when they perceive they are being kept out of things or not getting the credit.

When things go wrong, they tend to go into denial or to start rationalizing. They tend to over-react to criticism, becoming angry and lashing out. At worst they can act without integrity and compromise ethics–they tend to believe they are above the rules.

Their lack of empathy and extreme Independence make it difficult for them to mentor or be mentored. As Michael Macoby in his classic HBR Article: Narcissistic Leaders, The Incredible Pros, The Inevitable Cons, says, if they provide mentoring at all, they tend to instruct rather than coach.

Recognize anyone? We’ve seen too many of them making headlines in recent months. We see them in our organizations, at all levels. All of us have egos–even some level of narcissism, but the narcissistic manager can be challenging to work with.

Macoby offers some suggestions:

1. Always empathize with the narcissistic manager’s feelings, but don’t expect anything in return.
2. Be careful if asked for your honest evaluation. They want information that will help solve problems with their image. They will resent anything that threatens their inflated self image and are likely to retaliate.
3. Give them ideas, but let them take credit for them. If you think your manager is wrong, show an approach that is in the manager’s best interest and how they will benefit.
4. Use your time management skills, your manager may give you more than you can execute. Forget those that don’t makes sense, he probably will.
5. Narcissistic leaders will call you when they need you, anytime day or night. Make yourself available, be sure to fit their schedule.
6. If your narcissistic manager becomes too difficult to deal with, be prepared to look for another job.

All leaders have egos–some very large. But extremely narcissism and true leadership do not go together.

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