“It was precisely that evening in Lodi that I came to believe in myself as an unusual person and became consumed with the ambition to do the great things that until then had been but a fantasy.”
Napoleon Bonaparte, “Thoughts”
What makes a leader a narcissist?
Narcissists have vision; but then again so do people in psychiatric hospitals. The basic definition of a leader is someone whom other people will follow; narcissistic leadership is a leadership style in which the leaders’ main goal is serving self-interest at the expense of their people or group members. Narcissists tend to be appealing and quite adept at attracting followers. They often do so through language and believe that their inspiring speeches can influence people. Narcissistic leaders are accomplished and charismatic speakers. “Indeed, anyone who has seen narcissists perform can attest to their personal magnetism and their ability to stir enthusiasm among audiences.” (Maccoby, 2000).
Although most people think that followers need their leader, it is also true that narcissistic leaders need their followers. A narcissist seeks and indeed, needs praise and admiration from his admirers. Think of Winston Churchill’s wartime broadcasts or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address. The admiration that followed these speeches reinforced the self-confidence and beliefs of the speakers. Typically, as the narcissist becomes increasingly self-assured, he or she becomes more spontaneous and feels freer from previous constraints. They not too uncommonly begin to think they are invincible. Their stronger confidence and increased energy further increases their followers’ enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the admiration that a narcissist demands can have a negative effect. As he grows in power, he listens even less to words of caution or advice from his subordinates or from his people. He does not try to persuade those who disagree with him but instead he ignores them (or their advice) or in the case of some dictators, has them deposed or otherwise gotten rid of. The result is sometimes brazen risk taking that can lead to catastrophe of historical proportions. In recent history, a clear example of this was the scandalous events that plagued Bill Clinton.
Weaknesses of the Narcissistic Leader
Narcissists are usually not at ease with, or sometimes even aware of, their emotions, indeed they are often described as unemotional. They tend only to listen for the kind of information they are seeking at the moment. They generally don’t learn well from others unless they view that person as an equal superior being. They don’t like to teach per se but they do believe heartily in indoctrination and making speeches. They will try to dominate meetings with subordinates as well as equals. One of the significant weaknesses of a narcissistic leader is that his faults become even more magnified the more successful he becomes.
Sensitive to Criticism. Due to their extreme sensitivity to even the slightest comment that they view as negative, narcissistic leaders tend to shun all emotions. Narcissistic leaders typically keep others at a distance and can become quite emotionally isolated. They can put up a wall of emotional armor as thick as Fort Knox. Given their difficulty with knowing or acknowledging their own feelings, they are most uncomfortable with other people expressing theirs, especially if theirs are negative feelings. Narcissists are ‘thin-skinned and bruise easily’. This is certainly one of the reasons why narcissistic leaders prefer not to know what people think of them. They genuinely do not care what others think unless it has become a problem for them. Furthermore, they cannot tolerate dissent especially among those closest in command next to them. Although narcissistic leaders (not dictators) might say that they want teamwork, what they really want is a group of people who agree with them.
Poor Listeners. Another negative consequence of their extreme sensitivity to criticism is that these leaders often do not listen, especially when they feel emotionally threatened or verbally attacked. Consequently, some narcissistic leaders become overly defensive and go so far as to make the fact that they don’t listen a desirable quality with such statements as, “I didn’t get here by listening to people!” Maccoby (2000) tells the story of a CEO who on one occasion proposed a daring strategy and none of his subordinates believed it would work. His strategy subsequently met with success; this only strengthened his conviction that he had nothing to learn about strategy from his lieutenants.
Lack of Empathy. Narcissists, in general, demand empathy from others yet they are characteristically lacking in empathy themselves. Lack of empathy is a defining trait of some of the most charismatic and successful narcissistic leaders. But a lack of empathy in themselves did not prevent some of history’s greatest narcissistic leaders from knowing how to communicate and inspire. Neither Churchill, de Gaulle, Stalin, nor Mao Tse-tung was empathetic. Yet they inspired people due to their passion and conviction at a time when people longed for certainty.
Narcissists do have an emotional cleverness but it is rooted more in exploitation than empathy. Narcissistic leaders are intensely aware of which people are “with” them unconditionally and which ones are not. They know whom they can use and they don’t think twice about being callously manipulative. That explains why narcissists are often unlikable despite their charm, charisma and personal magnetism. They tend to provoke opposition, and often people are only willing to tolerate a narcissist as a leader at times of turmoil.
Other Leaders with Narcissistic Traits
- Mahatma Ghandi
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Muammar Qaddafi
- Adolf Hitler
- Pol Pot
- Most dictators