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. People are all 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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The word leadership has become a bit of a catch-all. It can mean everything and nothing. And we like to invest in individuals as being heroic. So if you think about some of the films in Hollywood, Batman, and James Bond, and those kinds of things, it's always about the heroic masculine leader. And I think we kind of like that because it allows us to abdicate our own responsibility for sorting things out. So we feel that someone's going to come and save us or rescue us.
It's not a thing to invest in an individual. Because it's not particularly democratic when people don't feel like they're participating. But also it can lead to these narcissistic tendencies that leaders tend to have where they become more preoccupied with themselves and the idea of looking like a leader than actually what they're doing. And it also allows them to kind of exercise power over others, so maybe to reinforce inequalities that are already there.
The responsibility you have as a leader is to the other, or all the others, in your organisation and beyond. So if you're narcissistic, then really you're just preoccupied with, say, your own career or how you're looking. And it can be very alienating for the people who work for you.
The sort of affects it can have on other people is it can be quite toxic, or maybe even lead to this idea of some, an individual bullying other people or coercing them into acting in ways they may not otherwise do. So perhaps this could even have an effect of creating some kind of corporate scandal, because people go along with ideas that they're not comfortable with but they're fearful of not doing what they're told us such.
I think we can really interrogate the word leadership, because it has come-- become maybe a panacea for a lot of things and nothing at all. But we don't want to dismiss the idea of it either. Maybe we should be thinking differently with a certain amount of scepticism and less focus on the individual. So not the leader as such, but the purpose of the leader or the purpose of the organisation, and outside the organisation as well, of society. So instead of becoming caught up with the leader in the ways that we tend to invest in a single person, we should think more about what we're doing.
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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.

2.1 Keeping your organisation real

3.1 Surviving narcissism