Why I Researched Narcissistic Leadership and What Should Concern You

Years ago, I worked under someone named Pat (not the real name). Pat was always focused on what Pat wanted. But Pat also had a nasty habit of gunning for certain folks on our staff. One night while I was out on the town, I got into a conversation with someone who asked, “Eddie, what did you do to Pat??? They can’t stand you!”


Matter of factly and confused, I responded, “Nothing. What did I do?”


“No idea, bruh. Just watch your back,” he said.


Years later, I wound up working under other folks who behaved almost the exact same way. They made no secret that it was all about them and they had it in for specific people. I asked a colleague at one job about the behaviors and she simply said, “Ugh, narcissists.” I was intrigued. Intrigue turned into homework and homework turned into a grad school application to pursue a master’s degree in strategic leadership which turned into my final master’s paper on how narcissistic leadership affects followership. My research told me something very significant. First, it told me that I wasn’t the crazy one. Second, it showed me that narcissistic leadership is more than a sideshow, it’s a legitimate threat to followers’ sense of wellbeing.


Deconstructing Narcissism

 Zlatan Krizan and Anne D. Herlache's Narcissism Spectrum Model
Zlatan Krizan and Anne D. Herlache's Narcissism Spectrum Model

When I researched narcissism, I learned about the Narcissism Spectrum Model. It considers three major narcissistic traits—self-importance, grandiosity and vulnerability. Self-importance, which comes from a narcissist’s self-centeredness and sense of entitlement, is the foundation of the model. So, basically, narcissists are as focused on self-interest as a lion is on a wildebeest in the wild.


Born out of self-importance are grandiosity and vulnerability. Grandiosity is where exhibitionism and hubris come out. Here, narcissists’ ideas are very shiny and almost too good to be true; but, they pull followers in by making these ideas seem doable if everyone just gets on the same page. To keep the idea nice and shiny, narcissists tend to speak in absolutes to keep folks motivated; everything is the “best,” “biggest” or “first.” Think of Trump’s border wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for and his claims that no other president has done as much as he has for HBCUs.


For my money, vulnerability is where you can really tell that you’re dealing with a narcissist. It’s the defensiveness, resentment and emotional volatility for me. See, it’s all kicks and giggles until the attention is taken off of a narcissist, especially one who enjoys the spotlight. For fans of “The Office,” think Michael Scott and the “Diversity Day” episode which I broke down on the “For Our Edification” podcast. The crazy thing is you don’t necessarily have to do anything to these jokers for them to go full petulance.


We Got Us a Problem


COVID-19? Ha! Puny pandemic. Narcissism is straight gangsta. During my research, I ran across literature that suggests that narcissism is a real deal epidemic. For example, psychologist Peter Gray wrote that he views narcissism as a “serious social and psychological problem.” Citing a study that began in the late ‘70’s, Gray wrote that parents, at some point, began to pressure their kids to be “the best” at everything— academics, athletics, college admissions, etc. He also cited researchers who have theorized that those who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory answered its questions more honestly about their narcissism as the study continued over time. Finally, there is the argument that parents have instilled a false sense of security in their children over time by telling them that they are “special” with no specific reasons, causing them to grow up with a somewhat false sense of self-worth. Another possible reason for the epidemic, Matthew Sowcik and Austin Council argued, is that leadership education has focused too much on individualism, teaching the next generation of leaders to focus more on attitudes of independence and personal goals than building communities.


So, where has this left followers (employees, organizational members or citizens)? In a mess. A narcissist cares not about other people’s voices, because they see their voice as the most important voice if not the only voice. This is especially a problem for followers who engage in followership. In a nutshell, followership is folks’ intentionally leveraging their expertise and skills while providing feedback to leaders to make their organizations or communities better. So, followership and narcissistic leadership wind up being competing interests.


There’s another problem; the average person doesn’t really understand leadership. Leadership research tells us that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of leadership. In her book “Understanding Leadership,” Gayle Avery wrote that people struggle to place leadership in specific contexts because they see it mostly as directive. She also cited research that suggests that vision isn’t necessarily part of the average person’s “prototype” of leadership. Avery also noted that leadership paradigms have changed over time which may add to the populace’s lack of consensus and understanding about leadership.


Back to the elephant in the room--”The Donald.” In 2018, former Tulane University president, Scott Cowen, wrote about a debate he organized for his leadership theory and practice class. He had his students debate whether or not Trump is an effective leader. “Overwhelmingly,” he wrote, the class voted that the “affirmative” team made more convincing arguments based mostly on Trump’s policy moves. The team that argued against Trump focused on his questionable character and morals, something that one debater argued is a non-issue in leadership. However, “90 percent” of the class expressed skepticism about Trump’s effectiveness despite their votes for the affirmative team. So, with folks unable to consistently identify what effective leadership looks like, it’s easy for narcissists--natural negotiators--to slick talk their way into leadership positions. Great for them, bad for followers.


Managing Yourself Under Narcissistic Leadership


I did a case study of the infamous Fyre Festival and an interesting theme about followers under narcissistic leadership emerged--resilience. As you may know, Fyre Fest was coordinated by Billy McFarland to be this luxurious cultural experience, promising the “best” musical acts, an exotic location, deluxe catering and exclusive lodging. None of that happened, most of the attendees found themselves in a legitimate public health crisis, and workers didn’t get paid. However, there was a whistleblower (a common response to narcissistic leadership), the Fyre Media staff ganged up on McFarland, and some of them cooperated with law enforcement to bring him to justice. This follower pushback is important to note, because narcissistic leaders are incredibly skilled at keeping followers off balance by pitting people against one another.


This told me that followers must be confident in who they are and what they can do and they must be community-minded in order for the organization or community to thrive. Mind you, I don’t recommend fighting fire with fire with a narcissist, because unrest gives them an opportunity to manipulate people and situations. It’s not about managing the narcissist, it’s about managing yourself. Narcissists prey on people who either are not confident, unfamiliar (with the narcissist) or too eager. Another takeaway for me is that narcissistic leaders are especially dangerous in fixed mindset environments where people tend to wait for “stars” to make the organization or community look good. That being said, a growth mindset environment, where followers invest in their personal and professional growth, is a harder place for narcissistic leadership to take root and grow.


In fairness, not all narcissists are out to get folks. In watching “The Office,” we learned that Michael Scott, for example, never really meant to hurt anyone…except for Toby from time to time. Trump, however, has clearly shown contempt for people who don’t let him have his way. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, who is an expert in narcissism, breaks down different types here.


Still, the lesson here is that narcissistic leadership isn’t some small issue; and the people who take note of this counterproductive behavior aren’t whiners. They are real people detecting a real threat to their identity and value.


Be true to yourself. Be confident. Know your abilities and your strengths. Most of all, keep your community or organization in mind to ensure that people have a fulfilling experience.


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