Why We Don’t Need Narcissistic Leaders

What kind of leaders are the best for any organization? Why are narcissists the one to avoid in positions of power? What kind of leadership should we foster? Read on…

Power and The Desire To Lead

We all want power. Power is the ability to influence another person. The influence to make decisions and the ability to have those around us do what we ask. It could be the class president. It could be the lead nurse. Hospital executive boards. Boards of directors. CEOs. Presidents. Everyone wants vindication by our peers and followers and wants to feel important. Power can be based on rewards, coercive, legitimate due to position or expert. The final kind of power I like is referent power. 

Referent power is based on interpersonal attraction, with the agent having power over the target because the target identifies or wants to be like the agent.

I’ve been in medicine for 30 years and have been a follower and followed in many different capacities over that time. I’ve probably been a follower more than a leader.  At different times I’ve been a leader too but even as a leader I followed. Medical Executive Committees, Department Chief, National Educational Boards, CEO of a few companies and a president of a not-for-profit. I’ve been a follower more than a leader (did I already say that?). I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and what leaders I would follow and those I would not. Consistently the most challenging leadership to deal with is the narcissistic leader. I wanted to focus on what makes a narcissistic leader, why it’s bad and what you can do about it. This is not a political piece and in fact I will not mention any one name. It’s food for thought. Most of us are followers. We need to be engaged and active and recognizing that the bane of any leadership pyramid is narcissistic leadership. Recognizing and resolving this is important to the success of most organizations over time.


Narcissism has its roots in Greek mythology, with a young man,  Narcissus falling in love with the perfection of his own image and eventually turning into a gold and white flower. Narcissus was walking in the woods and was being followed by a mountain nymph named Echo. As he asked “Who’s there?”, Echo answered in kind and when she revealed herself her spurned her. She became just an echo hiding in lonely glens ever after. Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge, heard of this and cursed Narcissus who, on seeing his image in pool after hunting, fell in love with it and was unable to leave.

Freud went on in 1931 to describe a specific narcissistic personality type characterized by unflappable strength on the outside with confidence and sometimes arrogance. In the 1960s Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut recognized it as a specific personality disorder. They described individuals who presented an unusual degree of self-reference in their daily interactions, an inordinate need for tribute from others, inflated self-concept, shallow emotional lives, envy, exploitiveness of others, a charming and engaging presence that masked underlying ruthlessness and a lack of empathy. It may be a personality trait and it may be a disorder which the American Psychiatric Association defines as below. In order to be diagnosed, five of nine traits need to be present:

To put all this into everyday terms look at the list below:

We have gone from a myth to a personality trait to a disorder.

The challenge is identifying them. Their style of leadership can overlap over models and styles but the results are generally destructive for those around them.

Type of Leadership

This is not meant to be a scholarly article and if you want that Google early trait theories on leadership, behavioral theories, contingency theories, path-goal theories, situational leadership models and leader-member exchanges, feel free. Most try and characterize models of motivation and behavior and there is some overlap.  From a functional point of view we can break leaders down to the following:

Note that a narcissist can sit in a few of those categories.

A more contemporary breakdown is below:

I like this because this translates better to organizational outcome. The best leaders have a blend of each of these features.

The style of leadership can also be a function of the initiating structure (passive or active) and how much consideration is taken of others:

Leadership styles can be autocratic (my way or the highway), laissez-faire (do what you like) or democratic (what should we do).

As you glance through all the above you can see elements of narcissism present in every table.

Narcissistic Leadership

Ok. So we defined narcissism and we have looked from 10,000 feet at leadership. How do the two marry?:

Here’s a link to a great overview of the goods and bad.

Rosenthal and Pittinsky give a scholarly breakdown on narcissistic leadership.  They define it as follows:

Narcissistic leadership occurs when leaders’ actions are principally motivated by their own egomaniacal needs and beliefs, superseding the needs and interests of the constituents and institutions they lead

Note that the narcissistic leader come first and everyone/everything else comes second. The authors acknowledge there are good points to these leaders and its unclear to the authors whether or not  this style leadership is bad. The downside of narcissistic leadership are listed as arrogance, feelings of inferiority, insatiable need for recognition and superiority, hypersensitivity and anger, lack of empathy, amorality, irrationality and inflexibility and paranoia. Potential upsides they mention are their visionary ability and having an ability to inspire. I would argue that you don’t need to be a narcissist to inspire or have vision.

I like the infographic below and it shows some of the things we look for in leaders on the right  and what we in see in narcissists on the left. It seems to be a recurring theme.

Organizations put their customers/patients first, their staff second and their leadership last. Some put their employees first and see them as their main asset. Narcissistic reverse both of these rankings and put themselves first and either customers or staff last; it’s all about them. They are often autocratic and demanding, need affirmation and don’t accept blame. They don’t lead by example but feel they deserve their position and authority. The key is recognizing this.

Professor Brett Simmons is an expert on organizational behavior. He blogs on leadership and in particular narcissistic leadership:

Take a read for a thorough nad  scholarly analysis. From his blog: “Add these findings to previous research that showed narcissistic CEOs take bold, risky actions that can have a negative effect in stable settings that call for strategic persistence and continuous improvement, and the evidence seems to legitimize the contemporary focus on narcissism.”

Why It Fails

Look at the list below. Leaders should inspire and lead by example. They should be givers, coaches and take the blame. The CEO goes down with the ship rather than blaming the crew. Leaders are modest in victory, effusive in giving praise and share victories. They take the blame for organizational or constituent failure.

Those weaknesses are  not what an organization needs. The initial confidence and charisma can get a narcissistic leader in the door. The lack of ability to listen, autocracy and lack of empathy destroy organizations from within.

How To Deal With Narcissistic Leaders

Most of us even as leaders follow someone. It’s up to us as follows as much as it is to leaders, to set the tone. Passive dependent followers allow narcissistic leadership to succeed in their personal goals at the expense of the followers. Active critical thinkers challenge leadership. True leaders recognize and nurture this- it is a strength of the organization. Narcissistic leaders will suppress it. We as follows need to decide where we are. We can be yes people, sheep, alienated or effective.

As followers we need to be active and critical thinkers.

I stated below one of the keys is recognizing these individuals and ultimately, for the good of the organization, getting rid of them. Below is a good algorithm that can be used to deal with these people.

What Kind of Leadership Works Best

Not all leaders are the same. I like the table below as it shows several kinds of positive leadership that can be embraced by an organization. I prefer visionary leaders who are democratic, are empathic and lead by example. Their respect is earned through reverance to their managerial abilities.

Modern theories on leadership mention servant leadership and inspirational leadership which can be broken down into transformational leadership, charismatic leadership and authentic leadership. Servant leadership resonates very well with me. Servant leaders are at the coalface, making sure that followers needs are met. They seek success of the company not personal success:

Inspirational leaders can be servant leaders and they motivate followers to greater efforts.

Apple and Tesla both show elements of this in their historical leaders. Inspirational leaders can still be servant leaders.

Wrapping Up

Narcissistic leaders are not good for organizations.

We need inspirational and charismatic leaders. We need servant leaders. We need givers not takers. We need leaders who value those around them. We don’t need leaders who take all the credit and none of the criticism. Leadership theory and modeling shows us what can work and what does not. Narcissistic leaders are challenging. They can pose as charismatic and at the outset appear anointed. Over time their true agenda is revealed and it’s all about them. Over the last few decades I’ve had a lot of different leadership positions. I have personally modelled myself on servant leadership, being a giver, looking after my staff, collaborating and sharing the credit. It has worked very well for my companies and departments. It engenders trust and undying loyalty. We need to get rid of our narcissistic leaders who put themselves first. Our country has become self-centered. It’s all about ‘me’. As we face issues that go beyond any one person, be they the environment, public health, wealth inequities and the future of our children and grandchildren the concept of moving away from narcissistic leadership and towards servant leadership takes on more value and traction.

We need to learn to be givers not takers.


Agree? Disagree? Feel free to share or leave a comment below!

4 responses to “Why We Don’t Need Narcissistic Leaders”

  1. Kouros Avatar

    Great Read Lali!

    1. Lali Sekhon Avatar
      Lali Sekhon

      Thank you for reading.

    2. Lali Sekhon Avatar
      Lali Sekhon

      Thanks for reading!

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