Five survival tips for dealing with a narcissistic leader

Narcissists can be brilliant visionaries, powerful leaders... and a train wreck waiting to happen. If you work for one, be ready for some special handling.

Times of great change require leaders who have immense vision, courage, and the capacity to ignore what everyone else is doing. Many would put BP's John Browne and former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn in this category.

You don't necessarily like these people, but they can lead you to success and may be the only leaders capable of delivering true, galvanic change. Being part of their ride can be exhilarating, instructive, inspiring, and lucrative. But hanging on for that ride is emotionally and professionally taxing.

What is a narcissist?

Psychoanalysts describe narcissistic personalities as independent, innovative, and drawn to power and glory. They rarely suffer from doubt or second thoughts and can come across as very aggressive. Their extreme absorption in their own vision blinds them to risks, problems, or nuance. If their vision is wrong, they'll lead everyone over the cliff and never notice. And while their interpersonal skills are poor, they will take all dissent personally. They may not be sensitive to others, but any slight or criticism is felt personally indeed.

If you find yourself trying to cope with a narcissistic leader, these suggestions may help.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in BNET's Serial CEO blog.

1: Play to the upside

Narcissists are sometimes great leaders because they have vision and are sufficiently self-absorbed not to care (or even notice) how mad they may appear to others. There's little value in trying to modify this. If you want radical change, it won't be delivered by sensitive leaders but by those so caught up in their own vision that they can't see anything else. You will have to learn not to mind their faults. But don't become impervious to them — you need to retain your ability to distinguish their greatness from their potential madness.

2: Don't even think of competing

No ego can match, never mind annihilate, the ego of the narcissist. What you have to decide is whether their achievement will facilitate your success. If it will, that's fine. If these two are at odds, get out now.

3: Help them privately

While narcissists may think they know everything, the smart ones know they need help. But they won't show this — or want it demonstrated — in public. So find a back channel: private time alone, email, phone calls. Smart narcissists will absorb all your great insight, data, and advice and effortlessly fold it into their own thinking. Don't expect acknowledgement, gratitude, or thanks, but don't abdicate, either. Many narcissists will understand that they need your insights, even if they never acknowledge it.

4: Decide how to deal with the bullying

Most narcissists are bullies, subject to tremendous rage. There are two ways to manage this: Ignore it, like water off a duck's back (if you truly can) or stand up to it early. Your refusal to be insulted or abused will carry weight because there is nothing a narcissist hates more than losing an audience.

5: Accept that narcissists have no desire to change

Even if they're wreaking havoc, they won't care. They know they're right. If you think you can change them, you're wrong. You'll waste time and endure a lot of abuse along the way.

The tragedy of narcissists, of course, is that having defeated a mighty foe or delivered epic change, they are the last people to enjoy the fruits of their labor. If you let them, they'll destroy what they've built. So the critical question when dealing with narcissistic leaders is this: Are you in a situation that needs this level of drive, radical intensity, and vision? If you are, it could be that only a narcissist will get you there.

Your take

Have you ever worked for or with a narcissist? Was it a positive or negative experience — or both?

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