The Rise and Fall of the Narcissistic Leader
von Karsten Drath
Narcissus, the young man from Greek mythology, fell in love with his own reflection in a pond and ultimately drowned in his attempt to get too close to his own image. Leaders with narcissistic tendencies fit perfectly into both the modern business world and also the political system. Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi are perfect examples for this phenomenon in the political domain while business leaders like Elon Musk (Tesla) or Thomas Middelhoff (Arcandor) are prominent cases for the business world.
After all, they are willing and able to achieve a lot, provide simple answers to next to impossible challenges and are ready to take on a lot of responsibility whilst radiating a seemingly endless amount of self-confidence. Voters, media, shareholders and capital markets find all of this very attractive and reassuring since it fits so well into the growing populism and shortened attention span of the western world. In fact, the narcissistic character is described in personality psychology by the following attributes:
- Superficially charming
- Strong communicator
- Inflated self-image
Sounds familiar, right? The secret propulsion system inside a narcissist however is the gnawing sense of self-doubt deep inside themselves. The only way for a narcissist to cope with this is to constantly convince himself of his own grandness. No wonder therefore that they often assume leadership positions in which they drive forward innovations, turnarounds or restructurings and are successful with this for a long period – all sure-fire ways of getting into the limelight.
Their love of themselves is so big that these leaders are spurred on to outdo themselves. There is a clear parallel between narcissists and power-oriented leaders. Both demand privileges for themselves and see putting themselves first as the most natural thing in the world. The American forensic psychologist Robert Hare confirmed with this research that leaders of the political and business domain are five times more likely to show narcissistic behavior patterns than the average population. Their enthusiastic and eloquent way of being is infectious for their environment. However, there is also the dark side. Hare also describes the following aspects of narcissistic personalities:
- Overly accepting of high risks
- Unable to take on responsibility for own actions
- Unable to feel remorse
- Unable to have deep emotions
- Lacking empathy
Due to their lack of scruple and their inflated self-confidence they are seen by many as credible drivers of change even though their shortcomings in character might be seemingly obvious. Since laying people off in thousands and impacting their families dramatically does not cost them any sleep, crisis, restructuring and turnaround seems like their natural habitat to many. Narcissistic leaders are able to intuitively understand which behaviour has the highest likelihood for success in any given situation. Hence it is easy for them to skilfully win any argument and succeed in power struggle. Their natural sense of entitlement and a deep conviction to not be burdened by the same ethical standards and moral conventions as normal people allows them to ignore, bend or break the rules which typically makes them very successful in the short run, especially during times of crisis.
The Achilles Heel
However due to their inability for deep emotions they typically lack a positive vision for the future and hence are not very strong in developing compelling long-term strategic perspectives. Furthermore, they are easily bored when things are too normal and under control which makes them create one crisis after the next whilst constantly increasing the incurred risks.
In many cases this is also their Achilles heel. After long years of stellar success and the reputation of an untouchable rainmaker their fate often suddenly collapses and they finally fail miserably. This was the case for ex-Arcandor CEO Thomas Middelhoff who was sentenced to three years in jail because of embezzlement and tax fraud. Also Italy’s ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi today is a sentenced criminal offender for tax fraud and banned from any public posts. Many other legal claims against him are still pending a ruling. It remains to be seen what will happen with leaders like Trump and Musk going forward.
Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.
Check out his latest book
Resilient Leadership – Beyond Myths and Misunderstandings