I recently read that a narcissistic former CEO is being considered as a candidate for president. This former CEO nearly destroyed a major US corporation and left, of course, with a multi-million dollar severance package. The suggestion of narcissism is not mine, but the assessment of many who have watched this person’s career and have seen the piles of the dead along the path. Who could imagine the damage this person could cause as president?
On the other hand, some people think this is just the kind of person we need in leadership. Narcissism is increasingly seen as a positive characteristic among leaders. And narcissists are found in almost every type of leader position offered in our culture. Spiritual leaders, military leaders, political leaders, organizational leaders, even local and small group leaders are often narcissists.
Leadership positions draw narcissists like parties draw college students. Even if they aren’t particularly interested, the people around them push and pull them into leadership. Almost all the narcissists I have known have been in some leadership position, usually in churches. Narcissists love leadership, and our culture loves to have narcissistic leaders. It seems to be a marriage made in… well, not Heaven.
Now, before I go much further I have to acknowledge that I do not believe true leadership can be accomplished by a narcissist. In my heart, I believe that leadership really is people-centered and empathic. But that’s why I have a small church, some would say. That’s why I have never been a significant leader, others would say. For our culture, leaders are people who can make things happen.
Narcissists can make things happen. Let’s think about why. What characteristics do narcissists have that make them “good leaders” in our culture?
One of the first things we have to understand is that political maneuvering is in the nature of the narcissist. They cultivate friendships, learn secrets, and manipulate others with extraordinary skill. They sense leadership opportunities, know when a co-worker is weak, and watch for administrations to make changes. In other words, narcissists prepare for leadership. They might even cultivate dissension within the organization so leadership opportunities will be available. Many will take lesser positions as a way of putting themselves in line for the “big one.” When leadership is defined as political prowess, narcissists almost deserve to be leaders.
It is common to speak of the poor “people skills” of the narcissist, but that can be an error. Narcissists may have poor relationship skills, but they know people. Politicians, preachers, doctors, and others rarely rise to leadership positions without working with people. In fact, we could say that, from a certain perspective, narcissists have much greater people skills than most of the rest of us. What is sadly true is that narcissists don’t care about people. They use people to accomplish their purposes; but they can discard or abuse without hesitation because people are simply objects for them. Many leaders today are in their positions simply because of their ability to use the work and skills of others. They bring little that is applicable to the organization, except their willingness to use others and the understanding to see who would be able to accomplish what is needed.
Perhaps the most hated and most popular characteristic of narcissistic leaders is the disconnect they have between their goals and the pain of others. If the goal, for example, is to increase the value of company stock, the leader might decide to cut the number of employees. Knowing that the job market is difficult, the leader is confident that remaining employees will work longer hours under more pressure to make up for the loss of the others. Employees who quit under the pressure will easily be replaced, if necessary, by younger employees earning less pay. If closing a plant in one location can be made to look like progress for the company, the local workers who lose their jobs are of little concern. This has been happening around the country for many years.
So consider this. Narcissists…
Have extraordinary people skills
Don’t see people, but assets
Rarely suffer regrets
Are limited by few scruples
Have no qualms about making decisions that hurt others
Have little or no hesitation to use others and discard them
Does that look like leadership in politics or business to you? It may even look like leadership in your church. These are the people who are credited with turning small companies into great ones. These are the ones who grow large churches, and who get themselves elected to public office. They run much of the world in which we live. Shareholders, church members, and organizational volunteers are happy with the new energy they bring.
Until. You see, there is one characteristic about narcissists that is rarely noticed at the beginning of the relationship. The narcissist cares only about himself. If shareholders are happy, he can mold his contract to whatever benefits him the most. Who do you suppose manipulated those incredible severance packages given to departing CEOs of failing companies? If the church members are happy, or at least the ones who matter, the pastor can have his extra vacation, his travel opportunities, and his work/leadership team. The narcissist takes care of himself. And when the company struggles, the CEO simply cashes in and moves to another organization.
So what are we finding in organizations, churches, businesses, and governments today? Weak structures unable to handle the normal pressures of change. Self-serving leadership at nearly every level. Depleted asset accounts. Abuse of people, money, and reputation by leaders, and inability of the organization to discipline or hold leaders accountable. Distrust of leadership is epidemic in our culture, yet we have never been so dependent on the government or the company. We feel trapped, yet the addiction moves us to be excited with news of the next change.
Narcissistic abuse explains so much of what we see in our culture, particularly in leadership. Those who are concerned need to understand what is happening and why. Narcissists might seem like great leaders; but, in the end, all you have is a narcissist.