Culture of Narcissistic Leadership

08/10/2017 07:12 am ET

When we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place. Well, that is what we hope.

But the truth of the matter is that as these so-believed ‘humble leaders’ improve the performance of a company or nation or perhaps any other specific organisation such a political parties (such as Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s conservative party; Victor Orban, leader of the Fidesz Hungary’s major party; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey; or the current American President Donald Trump and South African`s President Jacob Zuma) in the long run they are creating more collaborative environments for themselves and others.

They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of other’s strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These ‘unsung heroes’ help their believers to boost their self-esteem, attain beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organised group working for the good of the collective. They are unintentionally coercing a majority of society to be their followers, simply because the majority have relinquished belief in themselves to the point they would rather allow their leaders to be accountable for what is.

Often, we forget that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behaviour. Today we know that employees following humble leaders are themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback. In fact, when a humble CEO is at the helm of a firm, its top management team is more likely to collaborate and share information, maximizing of the firm’s talent. A safe, secure and sincere environment is guaranteed to nourish good ideas.

Yet despite all this, instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma. The Greek word “Kharisma” means “divine gift”: charisma is the quality of extraordinary charm, magnetism and presence that makes a person capable of inspiring others with enthusiasm and devotion. Further, it is believed that charismatic people are more likely to be endorsed as leaders stemming from their high energy, unconventional behaviours and heroic deeds.

While charisma is conductive to orchestrating positive large-scale transformations, there can be a ‘dark side’ to charismatic and narcissistic leadership: these leaders are prone to extreme narcissism and ego-centralism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims, enticing the majority depend on them. Today we have accepted these so called ‘leader-heroes’ because they have produced extraordinary performances that suit a great majority. But when charisma overlaps with narcissism, these leaders abuse their power and take advantage of their followers, enforcing a dependency that results in duality.

Without a doubt, narcissistic leaders tend to present a bold vision of the future, making them appear all the more charismatic in the eyes of others. As the majority of people currently feel anxious and fearful, their aim is that someone ‘out there’ tell them how tomorrow will be, how the future will look, so they can feel safe and secure, reassured in this knowledge. But this is an illusion.

We need to ask ourselves: why are such leaders likely to get promoted to the top? Despite being perceived as arrogant, narcissistic leaders, in particular, radiate an image of a prototypically effective leader serving a great majority of people. In fact, narcissistic leaders seem to know inherently how to draw attention to themselves. They enjoy the visibility and turn every opportunity to their advantage to protect their image, reputation and position. It takes time for people to see that these early signals of competence are not brought to fruition later, as such a leader’s anarchistic traits reduce the exchange of information among team members and frequently hinder team performance. But by then, things are already far too late.

And it’s not that humble leaders can’t ever be charismatic: we can classify a charismatic leader as ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ by their orientation toward pursuing their self-interested goals versus those of their groups. These two sides of charismatic leadership have also been referred to as ‘personalised’ and ‘socialised’ charisma. Although the socialised charismatic leader has the aura of a hero, it is counteracted with low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare. In contrast, the personalised charismatic leader’s perceived heroism is coupled with high authoritarianism and high narcissism. It is when followers are confused and disoriented that they are more likely to form personalised relationships with a charismatic leader. Socialised relationships, on the other hand, are established by followers with a clear set of values who view the charismatic leader as a means to achieving collective action.

The problem is that we select negative charismatic leaders with much more frequency than in the limited situations where the risk they represent might pay off. Despite their grandiose view of themselves, low empathy, low intuition, little self-awareness, a dominant orientation toward others and strong sense of entitlement, their charisma proves irresistible. Followers of superheroes are enthralled by their showmanship: through their sheer magnetism, narcissistic leaders transform their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centred, giving rise to organizational narcissism, as one study has shown.

If humble leaders are more effective than narcissistic leaders, why do we so often choose narcissistic individuals to lead us? High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises inflate not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.

Economic and social crises thus become a unique testing ground for charismatic leaders. They create conditions of distress and uncertainty that appear to be ideal for the ascent of charismatic figures. Yet at the same time, they also make us more vulnerable to choosing the wrong leader, because crises and other emotionally-laden events increase our propensity to romanticise the grandiosity of narcissistic leaders.

The paradox is that we often support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success. In a crisis, it is easy to be seduced by superheroes who could come and ‘rescue’ us, but who possibly then plunge us into far greater peril. While this may sound hopeless, there is another way of looking at it. Essentially, we have the leaders we deserve, precisely because we have given up believing in ourselves and have therefore acquiesced to guidance from these hedonistic leaders. It is become acceptable to forfeit accountability and responsibility in situations from which we simply want to escape. But this must stop!

As we collectively select our leaders to satisfy our own needs and desires, we can (and must!) choose humility or socialised charisma over narcissism. It all begins with introspection and self-awareness, being conscious of what is, being fully aware of what we are doing and what we are allowing.

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