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

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3.1 Surviving narcissism

Gabriel (1999, pp. 145–6) proposes four indicators that can help us spot narcissists at work and we commend them to you as a useful way of identifying trouble ahead.

  1. Real work vs impression management. Narcissistic leaders are more concerned with ‘creating the right appearances’, using the ‘right words’. We know we are working for a narcissist when ‘we commit an inordinate amount of time to sustaining the leader’s image of how the organisation should be working as opposed to actually working’.
  2. What types of activity are rewarded? If people and projects are rewarded on the basis of good evidence and merit, we are in a healthy organisation. If projects and people are rewarded according to ‘personal ties’, we are working under narcissism.
  3. Who protects whom? We usually think of leadership in terms of the leader protecting followers, allowing them space to grow and take some risks, within certain boundaries. Narcissists, however, usually look for scapegoats amongst followers when things go wrong. They rarely accept responsibility for failure, preferring to apportion blame elsewhere. Yet such leaders are often quick to claim credit for others’ work, as they feel a constant sense of threat from talented subordinates.
  4. Group connection. Simply stated, if the work group is connected by virtue of organisational aims and an organisational mission, this seems healthy. If a group is connected due to affection or loyalty to a leader, then this is likely a narcissistic trap. Such groups can be united because all subordinates have one thing in common: they all love the leader but do not fully possess the leader’s affections (Cluley, 2006).

Finally, we also need to consider what we regard as the irony of narcissism: narcissists tend to favour authoritarian leadership but struggle to cope when they find their own narcissism compromised by another powerful leader (Gabriel, 1999). This is a contradiction but a fascinating one. Its implications should be directed back towards ourselves. If you ever find yourself yearning for some decisive, strong leadership, it might be worth considering that this is your own narcissism speaking. Such narcissism can distract us from the hard questions.

Described image
Figure 4 A reflection of myself

Now that you have considered some of the characteristics of narcissistic leaders and some basic indicators of narcissism at work, you will next consider the issue of narcissism in relation to your own experiences.

Activity 5 Living with narcissistic leaders

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Have you ever worked for or with someone you would characterise as narcissistic? Without naming names, what were some of the things this person did and said that led you to the belief that they were/are narcissistic? What kind of strategies did you adopt to deal with their behaviour?

Make brief notes in response to these questions in your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 3 Activity 5.


Here are three basic strategies for dealing with narcissists at work:

  1. Avoid: where possible, work around the person. This may be difficult if the narcissist in question is your direct line manager, but even then you might make a judgment about how long you think this person will last in the organisation. Where the narcissist does not hold direct line management over you, shares it, or is a peer, a tactic of ‘safe distance’ might be advised.
  2. Confront: confronting narcissistic behaviour might be the most ethical course of action but also a risky one, depending on where you sit within the organisational hierarchy. If you hold line management responsibility over the narcissist, you might seek a conversation with this individual in an attempt to performance manage away the problem. Even if you do not hold line management responsibility for the narcissist you work with, you may wish to confront this person. Doing so in private would appear more sensible than doing so in public, as narcissists are more sensitive to perceived personal embarrassment than other people. You might also want to choose your words carefully – you do not have to label someone a narcissist directly. Instead, they might be somewhat ‘over sensitive’ and things ‘might not always be about them’. Finally, remember here that most people possess narcissistic characteristics to one degree or another. Most of us are self-aware enough that we are able to work on the negative aspects of our characters.
  3. Feed: sadly, but perhaps understandably, feeding narcissism is common indeed. Feeding narcissism means that you go along with it, pander to the narcissist, feed the narcissism, whatever it takes to keep your job and stay ahead within the organisation. This seems like an unethical position to adopt but people are rightly worried for their jobs, which pay for their accommodation and sustenance. Adopting a strategy of feeding is certainly unethical and may also be a short-term strategy. Extreme narcissists may be successful in attaining senior positions but rarely turn out well for organisations, simply because they are not organisation-focused; they are self-focused. Being tainted by association remains a risk when things start to go awry for the narcissistic leader.

Now that you have considered the benefits and problems of person-based and transformational leadership, you will next think of ways in which you can turn these approaches on their heads and engage differently with the idea of leaders in the sector.