the narcissistic leader: asset or liability?

Posted on Posted in books worth reading, leadership articles

I have coached many executives including CEOs, CFOs and COOs. Leaders on that level frequently share a common set of personality traits; they are visionary in nature, not afraid to take risks and have the ability to push through what would seem to be unassailable challenges. Yet, within this group of leaders there are some in whom those personality traits are over developed and tend towards narcissism.

Narcissism is a psychological definition which refers to the personality qualities of exaggerated self-importance, over sensitivity to criticism, the need for constant admiration and a profound lack of empathy for others. Narcissistic behaviours include; taking credit for others’ successes, requiring obedience, dominating or intimidating others, blaming others for their mistakes, sudden rages and an insatiable need for admiration. These behaviours cause great damage to interpersonal relationships and negatively impact the culture of an organisation. Despite the damage they cause many narcissistic leaders achieve great successes in their organisations, something Michael Maccoby explores in his Harvard Business Review article;  Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.

A true narcissist would be unlikely to engage a coach and if they do they typically cut the engagement short as they soon feel that they know more than the coach does. The exception to this is when coaching is known to be reserved for superior employees/leaders in an organisation. Even then, coaching is a tough space for them and they will endure it only as long as it adds to their perceived status.

Despite this I have coached leaders with very strong narcissistic traits. Since coaching is not in the business of diagnosing or fixing, I work with these clients just as I would with any other. I believe however, that my knowledge and understanding of narcissistic personalities assists the client to achieve the highest possible results. Coaching work focusses on balancing the powerful and beneficial aspects of the personality with the need to keep relationships intact and corporate culture healthy.

For an in-depth look at the phenomenon of narcissistic leadership grab a copy of  Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work By Paul Babiak, Robert D. Hare.

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