Narcissistic Leadership – A Strength or A Weakness?

Think of outstanding leaders throughout history and you’ll  probably find some traits of narcissism in them. In the award-winning HBR article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Michael Maccoby wrote that narcissistic leaders have always emerged to inspire people and to shape the future. For example, he argued that when military, religious, and political arenas dominated society, it was figures such as Napoléon Bonaparte, Mahatma Ghandi, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt who determined the social agenda.

Narcissism can be a source of strength when it helps leaders exude confidence that captivates the followers. This can further fortify the leader’s influence and control over them.  Compare this with a leader who is unsure of himself and can be swayed by the pressures of the people around him. Such leaders may be perceived to be weak and will eventually encounter problems in trying to set the agenda and execute his plans.

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On the flip side, narcissistic leaders can make their followers feel terrible despite getting the job done. Some followers may quietly follow their leaders’ instructions but have little respect for them. Others may just leave the battle when the emotional tensions caused by narcissistic leaders become too unbearable.

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So, is it good or bad for a leader to be a narcissist? I personally think that the bad may outweigh the good when such leaders reach the state of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is where individuals reach a point when they generally believe that the world revolves around them. According to PsychologyToday , this condition is characterized by a lack of ability to empathize with others and a desire to keep the focus on themselves at all times.

In this video, clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo uses clips from the film “The Social Network” to illustrate the prominent symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder – in this case the portrayal of the “Mark Zuckerberg” character in the movie. NPD traits are exhibited when someone:

  1. Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  2. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes
  3. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  4. Is interpersonally exploitative, takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  5. Has a sense of entitlement – unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectation

Of course, the real Facebook founder may not display (all of) such behaviors in real life (really?). But assuming – just assuming – this is true, then wouldn’t the benefits reaped by millions of people worldwide via the social networking site be actually a product of the positive impact of narcissistic leadership?

From a different perspective   one may argue that things got really going because of influence or charisma  rather than narcissism. Interestingly however, charisma expert Edward Brown, when discussing his latest seminal work on charismatic leadership, argues that narcissism and charismatic leadership  are inseparable. (But wait…wasn’t  Shoko Asahara –  founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult  which released deadly sarin gas onto the Tokyo underground in 1995 – a charismatic leader too?)

Probing further for an answer, let’s look at what kind of leaders do people follow. Results from an ongoing Australian Leadership Survey unearthed the following as the top behaviors and attributes of Great Leaders:

 Top 3 Behaviors

  • Leads by Example
  • Able to Communicate and Sell their Vision
  • Understand the People the are leading

Top 3 Attributes

  • Trustworthy
  • Honest and
  • Ethical

The above list has reasonable correlation with Gallup Press’ Strength-based Leadership which identified the following four Basic Needs of Followers:

  •     Trust:  Do you keep your word as a leader?
  •     Compassion:  Do you have your workers’ best interests in mind?
  •     Stability:  Do your employees always know what to expect from you?
  •     Hope:  Are your employees inspired about the future?

We now compare the above discussion with relevant literature on this topic.

In the December 2006 Leadership Quarterly article  entitled “Narcissistic leadership”, Seth A. Rosenthal and Todd L. Pittinsky reiterated that “the debate over whether narcissistic leaders provide a net gain or loss ultimately seems futile, both because there is no consensus about how best to define narcissism, and because of problems inherent in the study of any trait’s relationship to leadership”.

In concluding the paper,  they proposed a new definition of narcissistic leadership, which “enables us to transform the discussion from a good vs. bad debate about narcissistic leader traits, to an examination of the dynamics between leaders’ psychological motivations and behaviors and the motivations and behaviors of the constituents and institutions they lead”.

This leads me to conclude (finally!) that whether narcissistic leadership is good or bad depends  firstly, on the whether the vision and mission of the leader’s cause is positive and generally good for society. If yes, then narcissism can be a great impetus for success, provided the followers are not abused nor marginalized by the outcomes of this kind of leadership. Otherwise, narcissistic leadership can very well be a weakness that will eventually lead to the downfall of not just the leader, by the entire congregation.

I’ll end this post with the following quote courtesy of RyanJacoby.com:

Leadership is not about what you say, or even what you do. Leadership is how you make people feel.

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