Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissistic Leaders

by karlyn on January 19, 2011

Have you ever had a boss that you jokingly (or maybe not so jokingly) referred to as a complete and total narcissist? Maybe you weren’t that far off base.

I was doing some research for my psychology of leadership class and found an article in the Harvard Business Review called Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons by Michael Maccoby.

There’s a quote in the article that sums up a narcissistic leader perfectly: said one Oracle executive about CEO Larry Ellison: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

There are a lot of benefits that companies can reap from narcissistic leaders: They are visionaries and have the charisma to inspire droves of people to follow them. But their drawbacks far outweigh their weaknesses:

  • They only listen to the feedback and information that matches what they want to hear. When they say they want teamwork, what they really mean is that they want a group of yes men.
  • They completely lack empathy and have no problem laying people off or making employees angry. The article quotes one CEO who said “If I listened to my employees’ needs and demands, they would eat me alive.”
  • Their goal isn’t just employee loyalty – it’s indoctrination. And their charisma can pull it off. They need all of their employees to see the business like they do. If you don’t join the cult, you won’t last long.
  • They aren’t interested in disciplining themselves – they are interested in controlling others. Even when they seek outside help from an executive coach, oftentimes they are unreceptive to their feedback (unless, of course, its what they want to hear).
  • They are exceptionally competitive, which can be a good thing in reference to other companies. However, this nature rubs off on company staff, which can create a very competitive internal environment where only the paranoid survive.
  • Narcissistic leaders thrive in chaos – they will create drama when none exists purely for the sake of creating drama. They don’t consider the costs. So what if it derails important company initiatives? They don’t even consider it.

Here’s the really bad news: More and more companies are hiring these types of people to be at their helms. Why? Because they are like mad scientist geniuses. They have vision which they pursue single-mindedly, and they can achieve great things. The risk, of course, is that they rarely listen to their managers (because their vision and ideas are the only ones that matter), particularly if the input is counter to their pre-conceived notions. The article quotes one CEO who stated “I didn’t get here by listening to people!” When they achieve success, this only strengthens their resolve to follow their vision exclusively…unfortunately, there has been a lot of research to show that senior management really have little to do with a company’s successes. The people they have working for them usually make it happen, the senior leadership just takes the credit. That means that their companies also have a tendency to crash and burn eventually when their luck finally runs out.

Do you work for a narcissistic leader? Here’s what the article recommends:

  • Always empathize with your boss’s feelings, but don’t expect any empathy back.
  • Give your boss ideas, but always let him/her take credit for them.
  • Hone your time-management skills, because they are going to give you more work than you can possibly execute.

They sound like a ray of sunshine to work for don’t they? Unfortunately, if you aren’t prepared to do these things, then get out. A narcissistic leader is very unlikely to change. They are simply incapable of dealing with the fact that they have flaws and are not going to be responsive to input or feedback that doesn’t coincide with exactly what they want to hear.

Sad but true kids. If you think you have a nightmare boss that never listens to the people they hire to work for them and make all sorts of crazy decisions based on intuition rather than facts…then maybe that’s exactly the case. Run, run as fast as you can…

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