The Narcissistic Leader: How To Recognise One And What To Do If It’s You!

Poll a group of business managers for the names of great CEOs, and you can predict with some certainty a handful of names. Eric Schmidt, Jack Welch, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates are likely to be among the top few.

Ask a group of voters for great political leaders and nobody would be surprised to hear the names Churchill, JF Kennedy, or Gandhi.

What links these people, over and above their dominant political or business roles is their embodiment of the concept of the narcissistic leader. The narcissistic personality type was identified by the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. (1*).

The narcissistic leader is easily recognisable. He, or less commonly, she, is arrogant, has a sense of entitlement, assertive, highly goal-driven, self-absorbed, likes to be the centre of attention, visionary, a bold risk-taker.  

Does this sound like anyone you know?  These leaders can often lead organisations.

They also attract followers thanks to their magnetic personality. In fact, Freud wrote:

"People of this type impress others as being 'personalities'.

Their charisma, itself a product of their unwavering self-belief is one of the reasons so many narcissists "get away with it". Another is the co-dependent relationship with their followers. Yes, narcissistic leaders need their followers - without them they are playing to an empty house - but followers also look to their leaders for a sense of security and a place in the hierarchy.

Nor is the phenomenon a particularly new one, though Freud, and management consultants such as Michael Maccoby (2*), are among the first to both codify it and explain its relevance to business.

Perhaps one of the earliest documented narcissistic leaders was Alexander The Great. At the tender age of just 25 he was king of Macedonia, leader of the Greeks, overlord of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and 'great king' of Persia.

Signs of his narcissistic personality would have included his naming 70 cities after himself - an achievement many of today's CEOs would no doubt envy - and an increasing unwillingness to see the world as anything other than divided into unquestioning allies and enemies. He said:

"There is nothing impossible to him who will try.

Narcissistic leaders thrive on chaos. The growing complexity and fluidity of today's business environment may be one of the reasons we are seeing more evidence of narcissistic leaders.

They are the ideal people to reshape markets, or even carve out new ones. At their best they are what Maccoby calls 'productive narcissists". It may well be that to be an effective leader you need to have a touch of narcissism in your personality.

But there are downsides.

On the debit side of the equation, narcissists are emotionally isolated, unconcerned about the feelings of others, self-centred, capricious, distrustful and grandiose. Without a brake on their ambition, they may lead their companies over the cliff in pursuit of personal glory.

Perhaps the most effective brake, as proposed by Maccoby, is a trusted sidekick. The sidekick should be drawn from the ranks of the leader's colleagues and be someone to whom they are willing to listen: Sancho Panza to their Don Quixote. Bill Gates, when CEO of Microsoft relied on his highly detail-orientated COO, Steve Ballmer, a man with the personality type ideal for the role, identified by Freud as obsessive.

For a little fun you might like to take this quiz: 


The Narcissistic Leader Personality Quiz:


Are you a narcissistic leader? Is your colleague? This short quiz will give you some answers. Answer the following five questions, add up your score and check your 'diagnosis'.

1. For an effective leader, listening to colleagues and subordinates is...

a) Crucial

b) Moderately important

c) Unnecessary

2. Understanding what others are feeling is...

a) A key leadership skill

b) A distraction from focusing on business growth

c) Useful but not essential

3. My appetite for taking risks is...

a) High

b) Medium

c) Low

4. My leadership role means...

a) The business should go wherever I tell it to

b) The business should go where I see the most profits

c) The business should go where I can persuade it to


5. I have a vision that will...

a) Transform the business

b) Transform the industry

c) Transform the world


The Narcissistic Leader Personality Quiz - Your Results:

Calculate you total score:

Q 1:    If your answer was a) award yourself 1 point, b) 2 and points c) 3 points Q2. a) 1, b) 3, c) 2
Q 3:    a) 3, b) 2, c) 1
Q 4:    a) 3, b) 2, c) 1
Q 5:    a) 1, b) 2, c) 3 

Your result:

If you scored:

0 to 5 points:  Nobody could accuse you of being a narcissist. Do you even own a mirror?

6 to 10:  You have a healthy self-belief but are pragmatic enough not to let it rule you.

11 to 15:  You show many of the characteristics of the narcissistic leader. Get a sidekick, a company that believes in you, or a psychoanalyst!


(1*) On Narcissism: An Introduction, 1914, Sigmund Freud.

(2*) Michael Maccoby (2003} Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails, Harvard Business School Press.  

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