An organization loves a narcissistic leader. They are charismatic, resolute in their opinions, creative and spontaneous, and protective of all that they call their own. A narcissistic leader is a great opportunity for an organization. Unfortunately, a narcissistic leader can also be a great liability for an organization. They can be temperamental, mercurial, vindictive and cruel when challenged. They prefer to burn their bridges while standing on them, simply to feel the flames.
The process of building a narcissistic leader begins with a flaw, a shameful secret that no one must ever know. The narcissistic leader builds a beautiful mirage around their secret to protect it from view. Over time, this mirage becomes a part of their identity. Instead of the shameful, sad, scared child, they become the strong, powerful, successful leader. The difference between a successful narcissistic leader and an unsuccessful narcissistic leader is the reaction to their point of inflection.
The point of inflection is the moment when everything changes. The birth of a child, the loss of a job, marriage, death, divorce, illness can all be points of inflection. A point of inflection creates an opportunity for self-evaluation. Those who are brave use these moments to examine their lives and make changes.
A more narcissistic leader is less likely to use a point of inflection as an opportunity for growth. Instead, they use strategies to blame others and exculpate themselves from their misfortune. Mistakes are someone else’s fault, enemies plot against them, and their own inadequacies can be explained by lack of effort or interest.
Throughout their careers, a narcissistic leader will succumb to confirmation bias, picking out specific data points that conform to their personal narrative. They become the strong, misunderstood, confident, difficult genius who will lead their teams to glory if they only trust the leader’s vision. This strategy is ideal in times of uncertainty. A strong voice brings reassurance to markets and confidence to struggling implementation teams. And the followers of a narcissistic leader want to be ruled.
The narcissistic leader is appealing to followers in the same way that strong parent is appealing as they drive the monsters from a closet at bedtime. That same strength becomes suffocating as followers grow to maturity and look to make their own decisions. Instead of celebrating the success of their protégés, the narcissistic leader sees their ambition as a threat, and begins to find ways to destroy them. The inner circle becomes a cadre of “yes-men” and weaklings, unable or unwilling to challenge the leader in any way. And so the organization suffers until the narcissistic leader is forcibly removed.
The alternative is for the narcissist to recognize this progression and work gradually toward changing their instinctually protective responses. This takes the bravery to objectively confront inaccurate assumptions and destructive behavior, as well as the will to change.
**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.