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Leadership Development Must Change

The urge to research the phenomenon of the narcissistic leader is what pulled me to my master’s degree work. I haven’t been able to get away from these people. One leader would badger me about seeing their quotes in newspaper articles a day after being interview. There was the CEO who told me that they needed to establish a personal brand a month into the job and obsessed about hitting the ground running even before familiarizing themselves with the organization. A friend told me about how his CEO demanded to be the “face” of the organization in all marketing collateral and media. A couple of leaders that I ran across showed no compunction about bullying colleagues whom they believed received too much public attention. These aren't gripes, it is an indication that leadership development must change.

With their volatile emotions and lack of empathy toward others, narcissistic leaders have a tendency to penalize those who don’t cater to their focus on self-interest.

Matthew Sowcik and Austin Council wrote a 2018 article called “Developing the Next Generation of Narcissistic Leaders.” In it, the two argue that “the social shift toward individualism” has caused increased levels of “overconfidence, ambition, perfectionism, and entitlement” among college students. This, in turn, may have inspired highly narcissistic students to seek out leadership education and training opportunities. It is also likely that the leadership recruitment process has unwittingly bent in favor of narcissistic students disproportionately because of their penchant for assertiveness, showing confidence and talkativeness in classroom situations. As a result, Sowcik and Council noted, this has caused a domino effect of classroom literature that has focused too much on personal leadership development. To me, the college students in this study are pretty likely to be a reliable sample for society’s overall challenge.

A group of people laughing with one another during a meeting

Even in its mildest form, narcissistic leadership negatively can have a toxic impact on the follower, which is what I dedicated my master’s professional project to. With their volatile emotions and lack of empathy toward others, narcissistic leaders have a tendency to penalize those who don’t cater to their focus on self-interest. It’s why narcissistic leaders don’t like rules, policies and processes that are designed to level the playing field. The narcissistic leader, in this case, screams, “What about me and what I want???” As a quick aside, there is no coincidence that there is alignment among narcissism, bullying and racism.

Perhaps the real issue is our view of leadership is unclear.

My main thing is that this flaw in leadership development enforces rewarding self-centered behavior in leadership. When the current coach of the Colorado Buffaloes left the Jackson State Tigers, I was one of the unpopular folks who had the unmitigated gall to criticize the narrative that he was the "hero" that Jackson State (and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities) need. My harshest critic wrote to me on social media, “The Champion is a little bit arrogant, a little bit cocky but most of all the Champion is CONFIDENT!” They went on to write that the HBCU where I was working could use a “narcissistic hero.” Unfortunately, there are many who see a highly effective leader as someone who centers personal audacity as the key to moving organizations in productive directions while criticizing the collective for perceived weaknesses.

A major part of the problem is Western society’s infatuation with individual success, writes Alexander Burgemeester. We have a tendency to align power, material possessions and charisma with success. At some point in my career, folks who intended to help me tried to encourage me to do a better job of “talking a good game.” Being the values-driven person that I am, I found it really hard to understand that, for our society, competence and community often just aren’t enough.

Perhaps the real issue is that our view of leadership is unclear. Leadership scholar Gayle Avery holds the view is that most people have trouble putting leadership in specific contexts. Traditionally, we’ve seen leadership mostly centered on the individual(s) with the titles or executive authority. With diverse communities’ voices having become so much louder over the past few decades, however, we’re starting to see more people have agency in leadership opportunities. Ronald Heifertz sees leadership as a practice, not a position, and he sees leadership being anchored in the work to be done as opposed to the person with the authority. However, society’s appetite for individualism mixed with the infatuation with success draws our attention to titles and the perceived glamor of leadership. 

None of this is to say that focusing on the individual is a bad thing. And I’m surely not ignoring the self-care movement among leaders. My beef is with leadership development that prioritizes the individual, processes, results and profits in a way that ignores the humanity of the community. We can have both–confident leaders with swagger who engage in personal leadership in service to the collective mission.


Leadership development training should put ethics first. Ethical leadership considers what is beneficial for all, seeing how a variance of views maximizes collective success. To get ethical leaders, however, people need tools to determine who will practice their leadership morally and competently. It’s time to stop churning out self-serving heroes and start creating community-minded leaders who want the best for all.


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