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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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3 Narcissism: the root of the leader-centred problem?

Narcissism is a word and concept gleaned from psychoanalysis that is important for understanding and working with organisational leadership. In a nutshell, narcissism stands for extreme self-love. All people are narcissistic to a certain extent but most manage a balance between directing affections and drives out towards others and inwards. When the balance tips too far towards self-love, narcissism can create significant problems for organisations.

Narcissism is a seductive but ultimately corrosive phenomenon that can breed a toxic environment within organisations. Organisations can become more focused on the ideas, feelings and whims of its narcissistic leader(s) than on what is really in that organisation’s best interests. Differences between the organisation and the personality of its leader start to dissolve and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Watch the following video, where OU academic Caroline Clarke addresses the issue of narcissism in relation to leadership.

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Caroline makes the point that leadership is often connected to notions of the heroic, which is something that is re-enforced through popular culture and fiction. Some people desperately want to be the hero – and we could say that this kind of desire is linked to narcissistic tendencies. Equally, many people want to be ‘saved’ by leaders because being saved means that they can take less responsibility for an organisation’s problems. Narcissism, as Caroline states, can become hugely problematic for organisations, leading to coercive behaviours and bullying. Most importantly, however, narcissism diverts attention away from the needs of an organisation, instead resulting in attention being paid to the egos of leaders.

But how does narcissism begin to take hold in an organisation? Narcissists can appear bewitching to followers, who are moved by the leader’s self-confidence and inspirational message. Narcissistic leaders appeal as figures of freedom, dancing their way through life and work without the same worries or burdens as others (Stavrakakis, 2008). There is also a practical dimension to the rise and survival of narcissists. While people may be attracted to narcissists partly because they are somewhat narcissistic themselves, humans are also fragile and insecure, naturally worried for their jobs. It may seem like too much of a risk to cross the narcissistic boss.

When an organisation is really caught in the grip of a narcissistic leader, budgets may run out of control, and vanity projects may be funded. Allies of the narcissist may be rewarded at the expense of other, more deserving people. People can be psychically harmed, marginalised and bullied if they do not comply with the leader’s wishes. This happens because narcissists primarily care about their own egos and so all other considerations become secondary.

Did Kids Company fall victim to narcissistic practice? Certainly, aspects of its work did seem to creep fairly close to what could be deemed self-centred leadership. Indeed, in the Alleway BBC documentary (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016), Camila Batmanghelidjh’s personality is portrayed as inseparable from that of the ethos of Kids Company. She refers to ‘my extraordinary children’ (emphasis added), for example, in relation to clients. Kids Company’s problems were certainly framed by Batmanghelidjh in very personal terms. Negative publicity and moves against the organisation were referred to as ‘revenge’, as she was ‘supposed to be killed off’. When discussing the installation of a new chief operating officer, Batmanghelidjh’s response is to interpret this as an ‘amazing’ ‘disrespect’ to her. When asked about her removal being part of the agreement to maintain government funding for the organisation, Batmanghelidjh comments that she plans on ‘Tipp-exing’ (editing out) that part of the agreement.

The next section looks at how to survive working in an organisation run by a narcissistic leader.