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The Dangerous Combination of Narcissism, Bullying, and Racism

What do narcissists, bullies and racists have in common? A lot. And we're often seeing it in the same "house" among leaders who are hell-bent on doing away with diversity, equity and inclusion and "wokeism." As far as I'm concerned, the real target of this furor is the identity and value of the very communities of people they attack. The culprit is the dangerous combination of narcissism, bullying and racism that we're experiencing.

"Love thyself and only thyself," says the narcissist

I researched and wrote about narcissistic leadership in graduate school, because I wanted to understand why my identity and value were wounded by my experiences with narcissists. The Narcissism Spectrum Model illustrates that narcissism--a personality disorder--is centered on self-importance which drives a sense of grandiosity. But, if the narcissist doesn’t get their way, they become vulnerable, displaying a wealth of emotional instability. Depending on the type of narcissist, you may get a nice helping of narcissistic rage.

Capitol Police officers pulling a barricade from rioters on January 6, 2021
John Minchillo, Associated Press File

The thing is to figure out what type of narcissist you're dealing with. Will it be what Kristen Milstead calls the classic narcissist--your garden variety “Michael Scott” type who simply thirsts for attention? Will you be dealing with any one of the “Silicon Valley” characters who are mostly vulnerable narcissists--not thirsting for the spotlight but feeling superior to others? Maybe you will encounter the highly manipulative, sociopathic malignant narcissist, like that dude who sat in the White House from 2017 to 2021 whose is well-known for his rage when he doesn't get his way.

My research introduced me to two troubling discoveries. The first is that narcissism has been labeled an epidemic by both researchers and practitioners. The second is that our seeing so many narcissistic leaders is actually a thing, because studies have shown that leadership training programs have inadvertently created at least a couple of generations of narcissistic leaders. History has shown us time and time, again, that a narcissist with power will do what they need to do in order to protect their interests--bully.

They bully you, because you're a "loser."

Bullies care about winning. To do that, they need to quiet their opponents. But get this. Bullies have a sense of interconnectedness with their opponents as Joseph Burgo points out. So, if the narcissist feels threatened by certain people, he bullies them to either make himself bigger or minimize his nemesis (like that 2017-2021 dude versus the press).

That’s when the narcissist’s approach becomes, as Burgo puts it, "I am a winner because you are a loser." Bullying’s most common trait with narcissism, therefore, is a rage-induced feeling of superiority over people that they believe should not even breathe the same air. To the bully, if you’re a loser or inferior, you don’t deserve to have a voice. What if the bully felt this way about an entire race?

"Your race is a bunch of losers, because all that matters is what I want."

Racism is rooted in the belief that one is superior to others based on race. That belief is expressed through prejudice, discrimination, and antagonism. Carl Bell took a look at how narcissism compromises racial harmony. He found that narcissists’ sense of grandiosity aligns with racists’ collective view of their superiority, and he found that narcissists’ power fantasies align with the racists’ attempts to dominate other races. Bell also pointed out that narcissists’ angry response to criticism mirrors whites’ angry perception that Black folks are "pushy."

Table showing the intersecting traits of narcissism, bullying, and racism

Of course, one of these conditions can exist without the other. But if you think very carefully, all three often intersect. The tricky one is racism, because folks don't always "look" or "sound" racist. My lived experiences, as a Black man, have shown me, however, that racism can show up in unintended ways.

As one who believes that communities are stronger when all people feel valued, there are two things that I want to see. First, we need to focus on ethical leadership all areas of our society. To try to identify "effective" or "good" leaders leaves things too open to interpretation. When we lock our sights on ethics, however, we focus more on identifying leaders who act in the interest of all people by affirming their presence, identity, and value.

Second, we need to abandon zero-sum approaches to selecting our leaders. Yes, we should hold leaders accountable for managing their personal and political agendas, but we should also recognize that leaders are human. That requires citizens, members of organizations or employees being thoughtful about their followership to focus on the prize(s) that will benefit society as a whole. Taking a zero-sum approach, however, prevents people from considering the needs of communities.

Narcissists, bullies and racists are dangerous people--full stop. They are in critical leadership roles in our society, and they have proven, repeatedly, that they will do anything to protect their interests even if it means betraying their own supporters. I believer, however, that there are more people who want to live in harmony regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, faith-based beliefs, lifestyle, or ideology. Give a damn and do the right thing.


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