Narcissistic Leaders: 17 Characteristics Of Narcissistic Leadership
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While narcissistic leaders are frequently frustrating for anyone who works with them, they can often be very successful. Narcissists are so concerned about their image that they often work very hard to be successful in their jobs. The problem is that they do that not because they care about the organization or even what they’re doing but because they want to be seen as successful. They are concerned about their image. Working with them is very difficult because of the characteristics they have as a result of their narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissistic leaders have the same insatiable need for attention as any other narcissist. They also don’t have any empathy. That means they often exploit their followers and coworkers. They don’t listen, are frequently antagonistic, and openly criticize coworkers. Still, they are very charming.
I have worked for a narcissist, and of course, my mother is a narcissist, so I understand very well how difficult it can be to have to deal with a narcissistic leader. They can make your life miserable, and even worse than that, they can cause your career to stagnate. But, as terrible a leader as a narcissist is, they can also be very charming. When combined with their apparent arrogance, that can help them convince others to follow them. It’s important to understand that dynamic since a narcissistic leader can often cause great harm. Read on to learn more about these 17 characteristics of narcissistic leadership.
1. Narcissistic Leaders Have No Empathy
Narcissistic leaders, like any other narcissist, don’t have the capacity for empathy that helps a healthy person understand how their behavior affects other people. That’s why they can easily do some things that the healthy person considers to be offensive.
Without the capacity for empathy, a narcissistic leader acts without any kind of consideration for how their behavior will affect others. That means they don’t think about either their coworkers or their superiors.
They are only thinking about themselves and how what they are doing will benefit them. This is also why they have no problem lying, blaming others for their mistakes, and taking credit for the work of their colleagues.
You can think of empathy as something that helps build a moral compass. Without it, narcissistic leaders can be ruthless. That can be an effective leadership style, but it is often very damaging to the people around the narcissist.
A lack of empathy means the narcissistic leader can seem decisive, which can get the job done. But they are often decisive in a very cruel way. Narcissistic political leaders, for example, often become dictators as explained in the video below. They don’t have anything that prevents them from treating other people with extreme cruelty.
2. They Act in an Entitled Way
Narcissistic leaders, like all narcissists, feel as though they are entitled to all the best things in life. They believe they deserve the accolades at work even if they didn’t do the work.
They can easily take credit for someone else’s work and listen to others praise them for a job well done. It doesn’t even occur to them that someone else deserves that praise.
They justify these actions in their mind using a distorted view of the world. Other people, to the narcissistic leader, are simply extensions of their own identity. Therefore, they aren’t really taking credit for someone else’s work.
That individual is just an extension of their own identity. They feel that justifies their actions. They are entitled to their ideas and work product.
This is part of why narcissistic leaders cause so much damage to other people’s careers. They don’t let their coworkers get ahead. In fact, they prevent them from doing so by ensuring they don’t get the recognition they deserve.
3. Narcissistic Leaders Exploit Their Followers
Narcissistic leaders exploit their followers in every sense of the word. They often force coworkers and other followers to work long, hard hours. They don’t give them the appropriate credit they deserve, and they blame them for any errors the narcissist makes.
A narcissistic leader will exploit your enthusiasm for a cause or a job you’re doing in any way they can. They will encourage you to work until you drop, and then they will take credit for the work you have done.
If you try to protest, you are ridiculed for not being dedicated to the cause or not being a good team player. Additionally, since narcissists don’t respect boundaries, they will expect their colleagues to be willing to work anytime, day or night.
They don’t respect a person’s need for personal time. In their mind, as extensions of their own identity, their coworkers should be tirelessly dedicated to working toward the narcissist’s goals.
4. It’s All About the Narcissist
As with any other narcissist, a narcissistic leader believes the world revolves around them. At least, that’s what they have told themselves. Moreover, their focus is on protecting their true identity from exposure.
Narcissism forms when the normal psychosocial development of a child is interrupted by some form of abuse. The child becomes filled with shame and self-loathing, and as a result, they bury their true self.
They see it as hopelessly flawed. They construct a false self-image to interact with the world around them, but they live in an almost constant fear that the flawed true self will ultimately be discovered.
They are constantly guarding against that, and that means they need to control and manipulate everyone around them. Their false self can’t support their grandiose ideas they’ve propped it up with, and so they need other people to admire and praise them almost constantly.
As a result, everything they do is geared toward those two goals: protecting the flawed true self from exposure and getting the ego-boosting admiration they so desperately need to feel good about themselves. In their mind, it truly is all about them.
5. They are Antagonistic
Narcissists are relentlessly antagonistic to keep the people around them distracted. That makes it much easier to manipulate and control what those other people are doing.
Presenting an antagonistic affect also prevents other people from interacting with the narcissistic leader more than necessary. Such antagonism damages their followers’ interest in their work.
Even more sad is the fact that it is the followers who are already low on self-esteem that a narcissist likes to target the most. As researchers in psychology and business found in the Netherlands, those kinds of followers were easier targets and suffered more abusive behavior from their narcissistic leader.
Those same researchers found that such abusive narcissistic supervision was associated with lower performance and higher burnout rates. Added to that antagonism is the narcissistic leader’s propensity to take credit for other people’s work and blame coworkers for their own mistakes.
6. Narcissistic Leaders Need Constant Admiration
Another thing that narcissistic leaders need is constant admiration. They are always boasting about their achievements, even when they didn’t do the work.
Even if they do share some of the praise with coworkers, they will always highlight how it was their exceptional leadership that helped their coworkers to make their own contributions to the project.
Remember that a narcissist needs this admiration to prop up their own self-esteem. They lack the internal identity mechanisms that allow healthy people to do this for themselves.
That’s why the narcissistic leader needs external validation almost constantly. I remember that narcissistic boss I worked for would strut around when he was complimented on his abilities. He was good at his job, too, but his arrogance made it difficult to recognize that.
7. Don’t Even Think of Criticizing Them
Because the narcissist is full of shame and self-loathing, they can’t tolerate being criticized. They fear that criticism will expose them as the flawed person they believe themselves to be.
Criticism of a narcissist creates what is known as a narcissistic injury. That fear of exposure causes the narcissist to panic, which is why they often erupt in narcissistic rage with even the most gentle of criticism.
The only way to really provide constructive feedback to a narcissistic leader is to present the information in a way that allows the narcissist to claim credit for the idea. If a narcissistic leader can distort the situation so that they can believe they realized this on their own, they are more likely to incorporate critical feedback.
8. They Won’t Listen to Others
Not only won’t a narcissistic leader accept constructive feedback, but they also won’t listen to anyone else’s ideas. Well, that’s not exactly correct. If they like your idea, they will suddenly come up with it themselves!
They won’t be able to give credit where credit is due because, to them, that somehow devalues them. Narcissistic leaders don’t adhere to the adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
If someone is being praised, and it isn’t them, it’s as if they are being openly castigated. They feel as though it creates more shame for them. Their supervisor praising your work is like their supervisor telling your narcissistic leader how awful they are.
It’s not logical, but it’s the distorted lens through which a narcissistic leader views the world. It puts any follower or employee of a narcissistic leader in a tight spot. You might want recognition for your ideas, but if you get it, your narcissistic leader will resent you for it.
It’s a no-win situation, and it’s one of the main reasons why people who have a narcissistic leader will often have to look for another job or pledge their allegiance to another leader. If they want to advance their own careers, that may be the only way to do it.
9. Openly Criticize Underlings
Narcissists lack empathy, which is why they often criticize underlings openly. They don’t have compassion for how that affects the individual’s self-esteem.
They can’t put themselves in other people’s shoes to understand how demeaning that type of criticism can be. They only see the situation as one where they need to motivate the individual to do what is best for the narcissistic leader.
Because their own sense of self is so closely associated with how they are seen in the eyes of their superiors, they don’t have any compassion for anyone under them. They just need them to do what the narcissistic leader wants them to do.
If open criticism gets the job done, well, that’s fine with them. Of course, this is demoralizing for the followers and employees of the narcissistic leader. They go to work every day with the fear that they will be targeted.
10. They’re Building an Empire
Many dictators and tyrants are narcissists. Narcissistic leaders want to build a veritable empire around them. They see this as a kind of protective shell that will prevent them from being seen for who they really are.
Sometimes, such leaders have a real vision, but their narcissism usually prevents it from being carried out in a way that is truly beneficial for anyone except the narcissist. For example, what started out as the desire to implement politically an ideology designed to eliminate poverty and encourage equality was twisted by a series of narcissistic leaders into the failed communist regime in the Soviet Union.
It’s easy to see how such an ideological framework can be a tool for potential narcissistic leaders to use to gain global attention and power. While the narcissist may, indeed, rise to power, it rarely works out for their followers in the ideal ways they had hoped.
Still, the allure of the narcissist is evident in the vision they articulate for those followers. Many will blindly get in line behind someone who is so obviously abusing them. They do so often out of their own dedication to a cause, and they can’t let go even after seeing that the narcissist is the only one benefitting from their vision.
11. Narcissistic Leaders are Not Good Team Members
One thing is for sure about a narcissist; they don’t work well with other people. They aren’t good team members. They are critical, aggressive, antagonistic, and unethical.
They have no compunction about stealing other people’s ideas. They will also lie, gaslight, and triangulate to cause discord among their coworkers.
They will tell one follower one thing and another one something entirely different. They love to feel as though they are powerful enough to create the drama that results.
They are not concerned with how it affects the job they need to do. They can always use the problems they cause as a way to blame other people for any failures.
They also don’t listen to other people’s ideas, which makes it hard for anyone else to feel as though they’re contributing to the team. They aren’t a good coach or a good player. It’s really just a recipe for discord and, ultimately, failure.
12. Narcissists Won’t Mentor Others
Narcissistic leaders are not mentors. They don’t care about helping colleagues achieve their career goals or get ahead. They certainly don’t want to help someone who could eventually replace them.
They will give orders to everyone around them, blame them for any mistakes, and criticize their performance, but they won’t mentor them to help them get better.
They see coworkers and colleagues as little more than sycophants or competition. They don’t work well with others, and they are certainly not willing to mentor someone who might take their job away.
13. Competitive in Every Way
Narcissistic leaders are also competitive in every way imaginable. This can work to their advantage since it drives them to succeed, but it can also be a nightmare for their employees or followers.
As this article on the Penn State University psychology blog points out, “Pros to leaders who possess narcissism as a personality trait is that they push for better and bigger things and are willing to take risks that other people may not feel comfortable enough taking.”
But to accomplish those bigger and better things, they often drive their employees ruthlessly, and they not only compete directly with them, but they also encourage competition between them.
The narcissistic leader loves nothing more than when their followers are vying for their approval. To them, it’s symbolic of their power and ability to manipulate other people. It also makes them feel adored, which is something they not only desire but need.
Aside from encouraging that kind of competition, the narcissistic leader competes with everyone around them for recognition and attention. As a follower or employee of a narcissist, you’ll never be allowed your moment in the spotlight.
The narcissist will always rob you of that, which can have damaging consequences for your career. They will take credit for your work, and even if they can’t do that, they will diminish the credit you get by taking credit for encouraging you or providing you with what you needed to accomplish the task.
In the narcissist’s mind, there can only be one winner, and it’s not you. They will do everything in their power to keep the spotlight, and the adulation that comes with it, on them.
14. They’re Unpredictable
Perhaps one of the most dangerous characteristics of a narcissistic leader is their unpredictability. You cannot count on consistency from a narcissist. They will say something one day and something entirely different the next.
This is an incredibly frustrating characteristic for the employees or followers of a narcissist to deal with since there is almost nothing they can do that won’t be seen as wrong or traitorous when the narcissist changes their mind.
I remember my mother would change her mind sometimes within minutes of her original decision. On one occasion, I wanted to spend the night with a friend. Initially, she said it was fine, and I let my friend know.
Within minutes of that decision, however, she had changed her mind. In fact, she had become angry that I even wanted to do this. She kept asking me if I just wanted to get away from her.
In her mind, it wasn’t about my friendship, it was about abandoning her. I remember this incident well because it was when I really began to understand just how much her mental condition was affecting her behavior.
Luckily, her decisions just affected me and my father, but imagine someone in a leadership position with that characteristic. This is why narcissistic leaders often get in their own way. They have difficulty accomplishing their goals because of that inconsistency.
While they might have clear goals in mind to show off their superiority in the workplace or political arena, their own unpredictability gets in their own way. They may change their mind frequently and undermine efficiency by doing so.
15. They Have No Integrity
Another characteristic of narcissistic leaders is that they have absolutely no integrity. Their only true agenda is to get the constant flow of adulation known as narcissistic supply. They need that to prop up their self-esteem, and they need it on a constant basis.
That’s why they manipulate the people around them. They are trying to control everyone in their life so that they will continue to be sources of that supply. As part of their manipulation tactics, they will lie, gaslight, project, and triangulate, to name but a few techniques.
They will also steal credit for the ideas of other people and shift blame for their mistakes onto them. They can’t stand the thought of being blamed for something, and they will go to any lengths to ensure that doesn’t happen.
They don’t have the capacity to feel empathy like a healthy person does, and so they don’t understand how their actions affect other people. Therefore, they don’t have any inherent personality mechanisms that can act as a moral compass.
My mother used to say the most hateful things to me when she was devaluing me, and the next minute, she would act as though she was my best friend. She simply didn’t understand how hurtful the things she had said were. She also had no compunction about berating me in front of other people.
This lack of integrity can not only undermine a particular project but can also take down a whole company or destroy a country! It’s one of the reasons behind the fall of many countries that have suffered at the hands of narcissistic dictators.
Narcissistic leaders focus solely on their own needs and desires. They can’t see the long-term consequences of their actions.
16. Narcissistic Leaders Take Big Risks
This is another one of those qualities that can pay off for the narcissistic leader. Narcissists are often willing to take big risks because it can mean big wins. That can work for them, and if the strategy fails, they will simply blame someone else for the failure.
If you could act without repercussions, you might be willing to take more risks as well. In the narcissist’s mind, it’s always someone else who is to blame for any kind of failure.
My friend with the narcissistic husband has told me of several incidents where something went wrong. She had nothing to do with what went wrong and sometimes wasn’t even present when the problem occurred.
Still, without fail, her narcissistic husband would find a way to blame her for the problem. Perhaps she had somehow caused him to be distracted or had otherwise indirectly caused him to do whatever he did that didn’t work.
It became almost comical, but it can be deadly serious when a narcissistic leader does it. This is often behind global conflicts, something we’re seeing right now between Russia and Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has taken a big risk by going after Ukraine, and it’s had devastating consequences for both the Ukrainian and Russian people.
17. They are Undeniably Charming
One final characteristic of narcissistic leaders that it’s important to understand is that narcissists are undeniably charming. Narcissists can be incredibly charming, particularly at the beginning of a relationship.
Their relationships go through certain stages, the first of which is the idealization stage. That’s when they turn on the charm to learn about their victims and draw them in. It isn’t until later in the relationship that things shift into the devaluation stage.
That’s when you see that the charm that drew you in was little more than a ruse. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to get out of the relationship at that point.
Narcissists also display their characteristic charm when they begin to think that you will abandon them. They turn the charm back on to prevent that from happening. They do what is called hoovering to suck you back in, just like the Hoover vacuum.
It can work because of their charm, and for a narcissistic leader, that charm can work on multitudes of followers. That adoration is part of why many narcissists are drawn to authoritarian politics as the following video explains. It can also work on superiors in the workplace, which is why it can be difficult to report a narcissistic boss for creating a hostile work environment.
The characteristics of narcissistic leaders can often bring them success, at least initially. They retain their leadership position by exploiting, using, and abusing their followers. Even when they’re successful, that success rarely translates into success for you. They can’t share the spotlight or the credit, and they only compliment you when they need something from you. Their manipulation tactics are cruel and can leave lasting emotional damage. They will even use your own emotions against you.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve created a 5-Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers. It can help you deal with your emotional wounds to prevent toxic people, like narcissists, from using them to manipulate you. It’s a free guide that will show you how to identify, defuse, and heal your emotional wounds. Just click on this link and I’ll send it directly to your inbox.
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