While narcissism usually gets a bad rap, it is actually beneficial—and sometimes necessary—for effective leadership. At its best, narcissism can generate a powerful sense of drive and vision, compelling leaders to make bold decisions and creative solutions. World-renowned psychoanalyst Michael Moccoby points to Jack Welch and George Soros as examples of “productive narcissists.” However, narcissism has an inevitable dark side; in extreme cases, it can jeopardize the entire organization.
Here are five narcissistic leadership traps and how to avoid them:
1. Criticism Cynicism
At their worst, narcissistic leaders are cynical of any criticism thrown their way. They tend to be overly sensitive to critique, however constructive or necessary, because they perceive it as a threat to their authority and self-image. Narcissists are also emotionally guarded, causing them to become defensive when even small abrasions arise.
The Solution: To avoid this trap, change your perspective of criticism. Instead of seeing it as a negative appraisal of your worth, see it as a tool for self-improvement. Also, remember that not every piece of criticism needs to be accepted.
2. Empathy Drought
A common downside of narcissism is a lack of empathy. Narcissistic leaders can be so preoccupied with their mission or image that they become blind to the emotional needs of their team. This can endanger relationships, morale and even productivity. For example, Project Aristotle, a five-year study, found empathy to be a defining quality of Google’s top employees. Without consistent empathy and support for others, leadership fails.
The Solution: To avoid the empathy drought, set a reminder to check in on your team members individually. At meetings, refrain from dominating and try asking questions instead. Foster a company culture that values each voice and practices compassion.
3. Listening Neglect
Along with a lack of empathy, narcissistic leaders tend to struggle with listening. As intensely focused individuals with big ideas, they may forget to seek out or even consider other viewpoints. However, listening is crucial to effective leadership. When leaders close their ears, disconnect and dissension only grow.
The Solution: To avoid the listening neglect trap, recognize the value of each voice. Instead of immediately assuming that you know best, first hear others out. They might just have a solution or idea you would never have thought of. More importantly, allowing other voices to be heard will unify your team and promote positive growth.
4. Relational Trouble
Narcissism can also lead to relationship issues. This is the ultimate downfall of many narcissistic leaders. The problems described above—inability to accept criticism, lack of empathy, and not listening—are surefire ways to impair relationships and weaken your organization or business.
The Solution: To avoid the relational trouble trap and foster healthy work relationships, work on building healthy interpersonal habits. For example, prioritize compassion and respect for every social interaction. This may not always be comfortable or convenient, but it is necessary for healthy relationships and a productive work environment.
5. Empire Mindset
Narcissism is often synonymous with empire. In other words, narcissistic leaders can become so focused on their goal—or themselves—that they dominate and even oppress their organization. This is the most dangerous result of unchecked narcissism because it almost always leads to corruption and collapse.
The Solution: To avoid the empire mindset trap, keep yourself accountable. This is especially important for leaders, whose position of power can be easily abused. Keep yourself on track by encouraging peer assessments, seeking out mentors and establishing a balance-of-power framework for your team.
While narcissism itself is not inherently evil, it can become harmful if left unchecked. For leaders, unhealthy narcissism is especially detrimental. To avoid the inevitable traps, value criticism, develop empathy, listen attentively, foster healthy relationships, and keep yourself accountable.
Which strategy will you practice this week?