Historically, there has almost been an acceptance that senior leaders will have (and even should have) narcissistic personality traits. One one hand, there can be commercial benefits to the organisation, but the methods to achieve results are too often to the detriment of others’ emotional and psychological well-being. As such, the commercial benefits can soon be outweighed when your people burn out, disengaged, take sick leave and/or leave the organisation, and let’s not forget the collateral damage thanks to the powers of Glassdoor / LinkedIn.
What is a ‘Narcissistic Leader’?
Dominant people who are so fixated on themselves, and their opinions, that they lose sight of the impact they have on those around them.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” (Henry Ford)
Honest, there are some upsides to working with narcissists. Organisations need a big picture painting and the focus of how the organisation can change the world, the narcissist leaders are innovators and risk takers, they have the audacity to push through the massive transformations and leave behind a legacy. With this vision, confidence and and aurora; people want to believe and dote on their every word.
Another upside to dealing with a narcissist is we learn how to navigate irrational waters and how to be clear about your own boundaries and needs.
A narcissistic leader forces you to grow and stretch yourself. You should be thanking them! They’ll be definitely wondering why you haven’t already *wink!*
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters (Donald Trump)
Successful leaders want to win, but narcissists are not restrained by conscience, they are relentless and ruthless in their pursuit of victory.
They cut themselves off, emotionally, physically and socially, apart from a close few who feed their superiority complex. Those special few have fallen into the trap of thinking they are the unique individual who can forge a special bond and understanding, when in fact this is all part of the narcissists gameplay. In time, the narcissist becomes isolated, and without the relationships and the showing of vulnerability, people fail to trust them and the cycle continues.
The narcissistic leader wants, and needs, all of the people around them to think and act they way they think and act. They chip away at people’s confidence and perspective and convert them to ‘my way’… the lucky ones escape via the ‘highway’!
Although narcissistic leaders, take the risks and get stuff done, and get it done quickly, the repercussions are felt like the aftershock of an earthquake and there is a tsunamis of complaints, niggles, disengagement, drops in morale and change gets done to the people, rather than with the people.
The superiority complex is frustrating to the humble worker, just trying to do a good job!
The Warning Signs:
- You feel emotionally and mentally wiped out and trodden on thanks to their aggressive, abusive and berating communications.
- They are great to get along with, almost charming and you feel special until they get what they need. You’ve been groomed to think you are special, until someone else comes along who can better serve their wants and needs.
- They have inner circles of team members, the special few, the teachers pets.
- Cult or Culture. Narcissistic leaders develop a cult-like admiration from their followers.
- Loyalty to the narcissist is rewarded, often financially, making it harder for them to leave the toxic workplace.
- Excitement is created through drama, chaos and internal competition. They love the chaos because they can fly in and save the day and gain even more power.
- ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ – the things which matter for teams to function, quality of work, competence, productivity and effectiveness, don’t matter to them if you are in the special few.
- No matter how much you work, it will never be enough. Finger pointing and blame games commence, your confidence derails and you start to believe that you are the problem.
- They are all talk and no action. The ones always talking about good leadership but never living out what they preach.
- They lack boundaries themselves and do not respect yours either. They cancel and rescheduling meetings often and expect you to be available at their convenience.
- If you question them, you will live to regret it. You will be isolated, fed limited information, demoted and given unrealistic goals.
- They take your ideas, and present them weeks later as their own. You will find yourself having to plant seeds with your boss so they grow it as their own and not disregard it.
- They are uncomfortable with emotion. They listen only for the information they seek, not to offer any form of empathy and compassion or to learn from the person speaking.
- They build an empire. They want to take over the world, they expand their sphere of influence, hire more and more people and a narcissistic entrepreneur will keep building one company after another.
- They make impulsive decisions because are overconfident and convinced of their own superiority, they rely on their own intuition rather than listen to experts.
Ok, so you think you have a narcissistic boss, now what do you do?
If you think there is no way back, there is too much damage and emotionally you cannot take anymore, you should leave the organisation.
If you still have fight left, as difficult as it may seem, working with your narcissistic leader can be done but it will require lots of awareness, strength and support. This will seem unfair but if you want to navigate the relationship, you will have to put the work in because they will not change.
Acceptance: Working with a narcissist will be frustrating, confusing and challenging. Don’t waste time and energy negotiating, you will fall into the trap of thinking you are the special one who can get through to them. Don’t try to argue, explain or justify. Protect your energy and sanity, and don’t take things personally. Instead, practice acceptance and learn detachment strategies. Find your ‘red lines’ – the behaviours you will and won’t accept and manage your own expectations.
Learn: Observe the narcissist, watch what they do and how they do it. There will be pro’s to their behaviour that you can choose to take and learn from.
Practice compassion: Although it will be far from what you actually want to do, remember that they could be genuinely ill – nobody with a perfectly good ego would behave in a way they could be considered a narcissist in the first place.
Massage their ego: I won’t lie, the thought of this makes me feel a bit ill, and if that’s how your gut reacts too, please don’t even go there! Be authentic.
Look after yourself: Work with a coach/mentor to share experiences, and gather feedback, hints and tips. It also helps to just vent it out! – be careful you don’t turn into the office gossip or toxic employee though.
Plan your exit: Don’t feel trapped, think about your exit, just in case you wish to act.
And finally, a word of caution….
Some leaders can show signs of narcissism without being a narcissist. They maybe a megalomaniac, have another form of a personality disorder, be on medication that is causing side effects, be stressed or quite simply be a complete d*ck of a person!
Do not call them a narcissist, save the diagnosis for a mental health professional and concentrate on protecting yourself.