Top 8 Signs of Narcissistic Leaders

From parents to bosses to presidents, we’ve all encountered people who were incapable of displaying empathy or taking the role of another. Here are the top qualities of narcissistic leaders and why leadership and self-centeredness are a risky combination.

1. They’re not really a team player

You may hear them say things like, “I won’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do.” In reality, they view themselves as separate from or above the team. They may say they are serving the team or even ask how they might help or clear obstacles for you, but their actions might say something very different. This attitude may be reinforced by a reputation as a tastemaker, connoisseur or expert. They may not like to get their hands dirty and the team may even put them on a pedestal in order to protect them from the dirty (or detail-oriented) work. This is a problem because it does not encourage trust within the organization and sets a poor example for other leaders.

2. They don’t like to share credit

If you are collaborating with a narcissist, eventually the collaboration turns into their idea – or it gets sabotaged. Sharing the credit and the spotlight is very uncomfortable for them. This is a problem because the spotlight can provide warmth to other team members, and if there is no cover provided for new ideas, those ideas stop coming.

3. Their narcissism has become your secret sauce

You may mistake their self-centeredness for some kind of magic or phenomenon. Their personality may be the secret sauce that attracts people to your business or cause. Your marketing plan may depend too heavily on their presence and charisma. You may think you’re unable to close big important deals unless they’re in the room. This is a problem if you are trying to scale the organization, or if they fall ill (which they will do). Some teams may even fall for the trap of trying to scale and replicate the secret sauce. Stop what you’re doing. It can’t be done. Encourage the team to tap into their unique capabilities and become their own rock stars. 

4. They are the brand

They (or you) may equate themselves with the identity of the business. Most companies begin this way. If they are the founder, people may know them as the face or voice of the brand. Fame and attention may feed their narcissism, forcing them to keep their team out of sight and in the shadows. This stifles everyone else’s ability to shine, grow and mature as leaders. More dangerously, the founder may ignore other voices because they think their way – “the way it’s always been done” – is the best way. (See also: founder’s syndrome)

5. They are allergic to process

They may feel mired down or voice their aversion to process and procedure. Standards and charters will feel limiting and heavy to them. That is because they feel separate from the team or “above the law.” They want to be able to move and pivot quicker than anyone else, including their own team. This is a problem when the team is attempting to tack their sails to the same tailwind. They may act as if they are supportive of adoption and utilization, but in the end, they will ignore these new policies or worse, remove them, and, if necessary, the department(s) that created them.

6. They are withholding

Does their mind feel like a steel trap that you have to pry open in order to extract ideas (which are usually innovative and brilliant and worth the wait)? Is it difficult to schedule time with them to ask vital questions about the business? Are they the chef who never writes down their recipes? Do they speak in jargon and make it your job or responsibility to translate it for the rest of the world? This is a problem because it shows a lack of respect for the team, makes them feel like they aren’t as smart or capable, and pushes the myth that there are aspects of the business that cannot be learned or trained. 

7. Their attention is intoxicating 

These extremely charismatic leaders have a tendency to build you up and shower you with praise and affection. For those whose DiSC style is “influence” (29% of the population), or whose primary love language is “words of affirmation,” this praise can create a significant boost in dopamine. It feels great. When you are in their presence, you may feel like part of their inner circle – included in a special club or movement. But there is also a flip side. They may take the attention and kind words away as quickly as they give them. When you cross them, their wrath can feel like shaming or public betrayal. They may even send you scrambling to the calendar or your sent emails folder to see where you went wrong (see also: gaslighting). This is a problem because the root word of intoxicating is “toxic.”

8. No one tells them no

Narcissists will surround themselves with “yes” people. Without other voices, perspectives and opinions, they may ignore a wealth of experience at their own peril. Without anyone to challenge their ideas, the organization quickly becomes a top-heavy dictatorship and not a dynamic, growing organism. Another problem with this kind of avoidance is that healthy forms of conflict transformation are unable to be modeled for the entire team. If someone tells you that conflict is something negative, that only means they would prefer you kept your mouth shut and pledged your loyalty.

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Have you experienced these indicators in yourself or your leadership team? How have you addressed them? Did I miss any?

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