Leadership compare

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?

8 comments
tstraight
tstraight

Should we also kiss his butt? Maybe for the author of this but not for me.

technicrat
technicrat

Remember you MANAGE money time and resources, you LEAD people. Most IT professionals are "type A" personalities and do not respond well to being "managed". I had that conversation with one of my bosses. I told him " we are a hard team to manage, but we are stupid easy to Lead. I was very fortunate, he actually listened to what I said, after that the whole team performed better.

kybelboy
kybelboy

Obama is a narcissist and no one has mentioned him. He will lead us off the cliff because 50% of the voters are blind followers. (5 minutes to Wopner!) He is easily the worst (president) in history with an ego the size of a planet.

TownsendA
TownsendA

Many narcissists have failed because people skills are pathetic. however they often rule by fear like the Hitlers, Stalins, yes even the Churchills and Blairs,Kennedy's and others love themselves in a big way.

DSG7
DSG7

Needless to say he is no longer my manager - got my responsibility transferred to someone else to get away from him, citing his poor management ability and (contrary to this article) lack of vision and direction. There are too many downsides to a narcissistic manager/leader for the upsides to be worth anything. There are plenty of other types of leader and manager who, in my experience, have more impact and get more done, and narcissistic workers of any ilk take for more support to get anything done without any appreciable return.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I, however, prefer the term 'sole proprietor'. 'Visionary' will work, too.

djed
djed

There has never been a president who wasn't a narcissist. It's a job requirement.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I think the qualities she mentioned (independent, innovative, absorbed in their own vision, et al) better serve a business founder/owner than they do a 'manager' or 'worker'. The vision and nerve it takes to turn one's idea or vision into reality, turn out a quality product that bears one's name, and stay at it despite everyone who suddenly needs to fix what ain't broken---these are FINE qualities in a business owner; leadership qualities. The same qualities and quirks may make for an abysmal worker or 'manager'; they don't have their heart and soul on the line and in the marketplace every day. Leaders lead; not managers or workers (they 'manage' and 'work', respectively). I'd fire a manager or worker who acted as though they were the boss. It's my car, ultimately, and if you don't like the way it's driven (or think we're heading for a cliff), jump off. A lot of workers and managers are convinced they're too smart for their job, and start telling everybody else how to do theirs. If you don't heed all their naysaying and contentious advice, then you're 'some kind of narcissist'.....I noticed that the article used the term 'leaders', but didn't mention managers OR workers in its discussion. I feel for your bad experience with what sounds like a primmadonna manager. His 'poor management ability and lack of direction' couldn't have been helping the company or its image (thus a leader with a high opinion of himself and his firm---a narcissist like me---would have fired him for the good of all). I hope you're in a better work environment now that you've gotten out from under a 'poor manager'.