When thinking about leaders, self-confidence regularly pops up and is considered a common leadership trait (Northouse, 2016). But when does self-confidence stop and narcissism begin? Narcissism is a dark-side personality trait that is not immediately evident (PSU WC, 2019, L. 1). While self-confidence is a positive and desirable trait of leaders, narcissism is not ideal.
The psychodynamic approach to leadership divides narcissism into constructive and reactive based on the experiences of their inner theater (Northouse, 2016). Constructive narcissistic leaders are well-balanced, introspective, and empathetic while reactive narcissistic leaders are intolerable to criticism and fixated on power and superiority (Northouse, 2016). In the Harvard Business Review, Michael Maccoby (2014) states narcissistic leaders are often successful because they have “compelling, even gripping, visions for companies, and they have an ability to attract followers”. I became a follower of someone who turned out to be a reactive narcissistic leader.
I was a young and impressionable 19-year-old when I entered the workforce. At this point, I was by no means a leader and desired to have someone to lead me in my work life. My job was part-time clerical work at a doctor’s office, so it wasn’t that I desired a leader to teach me how to do my job but a leader to show me what life in an office was about. I grew up with immigrant parents who only worked blue-collar manual labor jobs so my understanding of professional life in an office was non-existent.
It wasn’t until six months after I started that someone who fulfilled the leadership role I hungered for started working there (let’s call her Jane). Jane was hired as the office supervisor. She was warm and friendly – she made me feel welcome for the first time at my job. Prior to this, I wasn’t ostracized and treated poorly but nobody made an attempt to orient me into the company. Jane did, even though she was a newer employee than me. She helped me feel empowered in my job, enough so that I steadily got promoted and became a full-time employee. She spent time to get to know me well enough to realize we had shared beliefs in ethics, work and otherwise. Jane always told me what she would do in situations I encountered and always told me stories of her previous experiences. I clung onto her every word, her every direction. This continued for years, until she stabbed me in the back.
Jane unashamedly took credit for my work. As I got promoted throughout the years, management relied on me more and more. When the manager asked me and Jane who came up with a brilliant solution to a company problem, she took the credit. I was so shocked that I didn’t say otherwise. I was just shocked at the lie, I was shocked that it was Jane, my leader who shared my ethical beliefs who constantly talks about doing the right thing was the one who did wrong.
It was almost immediate that I realized what Jane is – a narcissist. In hindsight, I realized that every word she spoke was about herself, her successes, her gains, etc. Even when a situation was about someone else, it would somehow revert to her. Jane never admitted when she was wrong, and she was never empathetic towards others. I realized that my promotions occurred because she helped me come out of my shell and it was my own abilities that warranted those promotions. After a certain point, Jane made sure I couldn’t go any higher. She didn’t only take credit for my work, but for many others. For Jane, it was about exerting her authority over others and maintaining that power.
The psychodynamic approach involves introspection (Northouse, 2016) – but how can someone as narcissistic as Jane see past herself enough to identify her narcissism and understand how it affects her relationships?
Maccoby, M. (2004, January). Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2004/01/narcissistic-leaders-the-incredible-pros-the-inevitable-cons
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice 7th Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
Williams, Jason (2019). Lesson 1: Introduction to Leadership. PSYCH 485: Leadership in Work Settings. Online: Penn State World Campus.